From first mention in the Leader-Telegram last year, through 20 public meetings, the No. 1 reason a roundabout was proposed for State Street and Roosevelt was to slow down traffic and make the intersection safer for all users. I joined my colleagues on City Council to move the project forward on a unanimous vote but in the spirit of being responsive to concerns raised after the vote I believe we need to look at other options to address safety in this intersection.
The State Street and Roosevelt intersection is driven by over 12,000 cars every day. It serves our larger community and provides access to downtown. It is a crossing point for students and faculty walking to classes every day. It provides access to the Third Ward neighborhood and the university. Because of high speeds and so many different users, the street has become unsafe.
Looking back to 1994, the last year we have records, State Street has had 25 pedestrians and cyclists struck by cars. Many were severe and we should be incredibly thankful no one has been killed so far. In that same time, across our city, 14 of our friends and neighbors have been killed crossing our streets — many with the exact same speed limit as State Street, including Menomonie, Birch, Lake, MacArthur, Short, Piedmont and others.
How do we prevent future pedestrian deaths? By slowing down traffic and creating fewer conflict points. The Department of Transportation studies show that if someone is struck by a car at 40 mph, their chance of being killed is 90 percent. At 30 mph it’s 40 percent. At 20 mph and under it’s 10 percent.
Knowing the number of severe crashes on State Street, and the fact that a roundabout would reduce conflict points and bring down speeds to 8-15 mph, I voted with my colleagues to initiate the process of having city staff approach adjacent neighbors to voluntarily sell the corners of their properties to make enough room for a roundabout. The City Council made a policy decision, with the information we had at the time, and to me it was reasonable in terms of impact and money invested to prevent a future death in our city.
Roundabouts are used all over the world, and communities across Wisconsin and the U.S. are now implementing them with success. In fact, the roundabout option was identified by the city engineer as the safest option. Unfortunately there are a number of misconceptions that have impacted people’s views of this project.
One, that neighbors weren’t notified. In fact, city staff knocked on neighbors’ doors, made phone calls and left door hangers prior to the public meeting on March 11, and of the property owners who spoke at the hearing, all of them left open the possibility of selling their land to the city for the project.
Second, that City Council shouldn’t amend a recommendation from the city engineer. In reality, we utilize the city engineer’s recommendation as a starting point but nearly every year we make amendments because we take into account factors beyond street engineering, like budgets, public testimony and much more. In this case a roundabout and other options were presented as viable and safe alternatives by our engineers.
Third, that the roundabout would be 13 feet from people’s homes. The fact is that the closest the road would be to any home is 25 feet. Other homes on the intersection all have larger setbacks, namely 29, 33 and 45 feet. This compares to a 30-foot distance from my own home.
Fourth, that this was a land grab. In actuality, all that was decided was to begin the process of asking neighbors to voluntarily sell corners of their land for the project. No councilmember has ever said they want to pursue eminent domain.
Despite nearly two dozen publicly noticed meetings, months of input and equal comments for and against, it’s become clear after the vote that opposition to this project has grown. I hear folks’ concerns and will vote “no” on moving the roundabout portion of the project forward in June when it comes back to the City Council.
However, the problems of the intersection still remain. I will not vote for an option that allows a kid and a 40 mph car to be in the same place. Given the number of past crashes at this intersection, and the 14 deaths in the last 25 years on Eau Claire streets, I simply won’t take that chance.
Together we need to create a safer intersection that will 1) reduce the speed of cars, 2) allow for safer turning movements, 3) accommodate bicycles, 4) allow pedestrians to safely cross and 5) suit the character of the neighborhood. I am open to ideas and options. My sense is that if people are staying positive and thinking creatively, we can build a State Street that works for everyone.
Werthmann, of Eau Claire, is a City Council member.