Eau Claire City Council members who had supported adding a roundabout to the bottom of the State Street hill are now changing their minds following strong opposition from those who live in that neighborhood.
Next month the council is scheduled to decide if it wants to formally start negotiating with homeowners to buy land at the intersection of Roosevelt Avenue and State Street, but some of the city’s elected officials already say they’re going to vote no.
Councilman Andrew Werthmann, who was leading the council as acting president in March when the group voted 10-0 to pursue a roundabout at the intersection, said he’ll vote against it now because of public opposition that’s cropped up since then.
“It was definitely people who were speaking up against it,” he said on his changing stance. “I’m sensitive to that.”
In addition to 3rd Ward neighborhood residents who wrote the council and spoke against the roundabout at council meetings, Werthmann said he also attended a gathering of the neighborhood association last month where many residents voiced their opposition.
Councilman Jeremy Gragert also plans to vote against pursuing a roundabout at the intersection, but still wants to see some kind of safety upgrade at that location which is a route to the UW-Eau Claire campus for drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists.
“I absolutely am interested in other options because I want to find ways to improve safety at that intersection that are more supported by the neighborhood,” Gragert said.
Gragert had led the push for adding a roundabout at Roosevelt Avenue during the March 12 City Council meeting as part of the State Street reconstruction project that will last most of this year’s construction season.
A month after the vote, three of the four families that live in homes that would lose a chunk of their yards for the roundabout spoke against the project during a City Council meeting. Residents then asked the city’s engineering staff to mark sections of their land that the city would acquire, which homeowners have since highlighted with bright orange ribbon stretched between wooden stakes.
Councilwoman Laura Benjamin, who was elected in April after the previous roundabout vote, said she’s spoken with those neighbors and will be voting against efforts to acquire their property.
“I don’t think I can continue to support the version as planned,” she said.
Benjamin recalled avoiding the Roosevelt Avenue intersection when walking to classes as a UW-Eau Claire student but thinks there are different ways to improve safety there.
“I think there are other solutions available,” she said.
Werthmann also wants the city to come up with upgrades to the intersection that slow vehicles that often reach speeds of 40 mph when going down the State Street hill to Roosevelt Avenue. Those improvements should also allow drivers to turn safely off Roosevelt Avenue onto State Street, boost pedestrian and bicyclist safety and fit the character of the 3rd Ward neighborhood.
“We need to re-look at all the different solutions,” he said.
Those could include flashing lights at the pedestrian crossing, a raised intersection, signs showing drivers how fast they’re going or even the city’s first camera system that could issue speeding tickets to drivers on State Street, Werthmann said.
“‘How do we slow down traffic?’ is the biggest question without a roundabout,” Gragert said.
Both Gragert and Werthmann encourage people to bring their ideas for safety improvements to a public discussion at the June 10 evening council meeting at the county Courthouse, 721 Oxford Ave.
The following day, the council is scheduled to vote on whether the city should proceed with the property acquisition process for a Roosevelt Avenue roundabout or not.
Councilwoman Jill Christopherson isn’t yet saying which way she’ll vote next month, holding off her decision until after the public and council discuss the issue at the early June meetings.
But she has heard the opposition in weeks since the council’s March vote and expects to hear more feedback that will factor into her decision.
“If there’s a significant push for no roundabout, I don’t see how I’d be in favor of the process of acquiring property if those property owners aren’t going to say ‘yes,’” she said.
Councilwoman Emily Berge is also waiting until next month’s meetings before deciding her vote. She’s hoping that those who support the idea of a roundabout and residents who are opposed to it communicate their views to the council via emails or at the June 10 meeting.
The city’s engineering staff is already working on a backup plan if the controversial roundabout is removed from the State Street construction project.
“We’re starting to look at what options we’d need to craft if need be,” city engineer David Solberg said.
The recommendation he made in March to the council was to add a concrete island between traffic lanes on the north end of the Roosevelt Avenue intersection, allowing pedestrians to cross each lane when the coast is clear. The roundabout backup plan would start from that, Solberg said, plus a sign with blinking yellow lights that pedestrians could activate when they want to cross State Street. But his staff would also work with the neighborhood association and the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee during June to also get their opinions on other safety upgrades for the intersection.
If the council axes the Roosevelt Avenue roundabout, the nearly mile-long State Street project could all get done this construction season, Solberg said. If the roundabout stays in, the portion of the State Street in the 3rd Ward near the UW-Eau Claire campus will be held off until 2020.
Private utility companies — Xcel Energy, Charter and AT&T — have already begun moving their lines along the southern stretch of State Street, and the city is seeking final approval next month for road work to begin.
A contract is set for a June 11 council vote and it is written with the flexibility to include a Roosevelt Avenue roundabout or not.
“The bids will accommodate the construction of whatever the City Council will approve,” Solberg said.