Every day, Gina Baker struggles to leave the driveway of her home at the intersection of West MacArthur Avenue and State Street, sometimes sitting idle in her driveway for upwards of 20 minutes amid near constant congested traffic.
So when Baker heard about next year’s proposed $2 million State Street construction project, which includes adding a roundabout directly outside her home plus two or three others within just blocks of each other, she’s left feeling more frustrated than ever.
“I will never be able to get out of my driveway, and nor will other residents of State Street,” Baker said, sighing and shaking her head. “I don’t think any of the residents on State Street were considered, honestly. I just feel bad for everybody that lives on or near State Street. I really do.”
Baker was one of nearly 50 residents of Putnam Heights neighborhood to express concerns and ask questions at a meeting late afternoon Thursday at St. Mark Lutheran Church, where city officials shared information about plans for the biggest road project of 2019.
The draft for the project released earlier this week includes plans to add three or four roundabouts at heavy traffic intersections along State Street as well as bike lanes and wider sidewalks, all in an effort to improve current safety conditions.
The roundabouts are proposed to be at Hamilton and MacArthur avenues, and Lexington Boulevard, with an option for one at Roosevelt Avenue, which city officials say is the most crash-prone intersection along that stretch of State Street.
David Solberg, city engineer, said Thursday that as traffic up and down the hill has increased over the years — to about 12,000 cars currently traversing the hill on a daily basis — the area has become dangerous.
So instead of ignoring those issues and pushing ahead with the need to replace deteriorating road and old utilities, Solberg said they decided to address those issues at once and to manage the road as it becomes an arterial road to downtown Eau Claire.
“If we don’t do something now in an effort to calm traffic and keep it orderly with this right now,” Solberg said, “you’re going to have some problems in 10 to 20 years as traffic continues to increase.”
But the addition of bike lanes and widened sidewalks also means traffic lanes on the State Street hill would be reduced from four lanes to two, something that concerns Teresa Oberweis, who has lived in her home at the corner of State Street and West Lexington Boulevard for 17 years.
Oberweis said that she, like Baker, struggles to leave her home on a daily basis. With the addition of a roundabout right outside her home, along with the proposed reduction of lanes, she believes that issue will only worsen.
And although she’s been to several neighborhood meetings with Baker and has given her feedback on the project, she feels none of that was heard in the draft put forward.
“It’s like it doesn’t make a difference,” Oberweis said. “They go ahead with what the plan was anyway.”
“They just don’t seem to care what we say and do,” Baker, who has owned her home for about four years, added. “They don’t live in the neighborhood like we do. I cross the State Street hill twice a day, usually.”
When Baker asked Solberg during the meeting whether there was concern about how these changes may worsen traffic in the area, Solberg said the project can’t solve every problem at once, but the biggest priority is to enhance safety conditions.
“It’ll be safer, you’ll be slower, you’ll have less of a potential for a larger accident or crash,” Solberg said. “So if there’s a little more congestion, but it’s safer and slower crossing for pedestrians, that’s what we’re recommending right now.”
Although Oberweis said she understands the desire to add a bike lane to the hill and more crosswalks, she also knows that it’s rare that she sees folks biking or walking up or down the State Street hill, or “suicide hill” as she deems it.
“I’ve seen so many people fly head over heels down that hill,” Oberweis said. “And I can’t cross the street to get to work. So let’s first deal with that, and then those few people who bike and walk in this area.”
Bob Carr, who has lived in Eau Claire his entire life and at both ends of the State Street hill, said while he supports the idea for more bike lanes in the city as a bicyclist himself, he doesn’t believe that a lane should be added on the steep, high-traffic hill, unless separated from the road by 20 or 30 feet.
“You hear about all of these statistics about bicyclists getting hit while in the road, yet we’re doing this. It doesn’t make sense,” Carr said. “This endangers an awful amount of people, both cyclists and drivers.”
Pointing to the ever-growing downtown area and the lack of options to travel to it, Carr also questioned the logic for shrinking the road to two lanes.
“We spend a ton of money on Pablo — which I think is great; I support it — but now we’re going to make it more difficult to get downtown?” Carr said. “It just doesn’t seem like there’s cohesive thinking and planning about our roads and traffic in this town.”