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Column: In defense of the city on Business 51

By Dan Kontos

So, it appears that the Division/Church St. corridor in the City of Stevens Point is in need of some reconstruction. You don’t say. Unless you are a serious recluse, you’ve probably become aware of this by now.

This stretch of roadway, collectively known locally as “Business 51,” is part of the old U.S. Highway 51 that ran through Stevens Point until the currently existing freeway bypass was constructed in 1970. In 2005, this section of state highway was transferred to the City of Stevens Point for $6 million.

In 2012, the city identified that Business 51 was in need of repaving, while aging utilities that run underneath it required updates and improvements. At a public meeting in January of 2013, a study was unveiled that called for the inevitable rehabilitation of the road.

A firestorm of opposition set in over the proposed changes, and in June of 2014, the City Council essentially pushed the project off until around 2024. Studies and planning continued in the background, but the focus was soon shifted to other projects, like the Country Club Drive railroad overpass. Just like that, the public moved on, for a bit.

Now as 2021 wains, the Business 51 project has resurfaced. After all, 2024 is right around the corner, in construction terms.

Let’s all start with a universally accepted truth we can all agree on, shall we? Rule #1: No matter what the final decision and outcome are for Business 51, not everyone will be happy. Can we agree on this?

You can tell by the billboards, yard signs, and media submissions, there is some real passion in the resistance to this current plan as laid out to the public.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am not arguing in support of the proposed patchwork mosaic of highway geometries that are in the current concept. Reminiscent of the great bicycle lane adventure of 2020, this project will feature a shifting arrangement of two- and three-lane segments, with the ever-ubiquitous bicycle accommodations. 

The reduction in traffic capacity, the closing of driveways, and the purchase of additional right-of-way property have upset a large number of people. The perceived future difficulties entering and traversing such a constricted roadway vexes many of the residents and business owners alike.

However, I don’t oppose the plan either. This roadway reconfiguration (known as a “road diet” by the trendy and hoi polloi of the traffic world) has some benefits, including general improvements in motor vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian safety. With over 600 crashes on this stretch of highway over the last five years, including 15 involving bicycles and four with pedestrians, the safety aspect cannot be discounted out of hand.

However, before the city hangs its hat too heavily on the safety aspect, if it was truly all about safety, why wasn’t a roadway safety audit conducted? Why wasn’t this issue brought before the state-mandated Traffic Safety Commission? Just asking. Perhaps we can save these questions for later.

So, remembering Rule #1, and filtering out the objections strictly over the design, what is the next biggest complaint I see? Well, it was that people were not aware of the city’s plans to do this.

Whether it’s a complaint about the “surprise” decision, or the unexpected and unwanted features of the reconfiguration, or the missed chances to engage in the public comment opportunities or address their elected representatives, people were just not ready for this.

Did the city officials do everything they possibly could do to educate, warn, and engage the public? Absolutely not, but with good reason. Hear me out.

Forget everything from 2012 to 2019. We can write that off to the annals of history. However, in February of 2020, about 21 months ago, the effort was renewed, with flyers left at properties, public meetings, a website, public Q&A sessions, social media posts, news pieces, surveys, and more.

Did city officials do their due diligence in educating the public? I would say that they did. They certainly went beyond the minimum, beyond merely checking the box and calling it good.

Was there more they could have done? Could they have held more meetings, sent more officials to knock on doors and leave letters, taken more surveys? Of course, but you reach a point of diminishing returns, where it eventually takes a Herculean effort to barely even move the needle.

Having been involved in my share of these, I can say that public participation along the way is rarely more than anemic—until just before a project begins. That’s when the enormity of any such project and the impact on the community comes into focus, magnified by the seemingly sudden onset of the decision. The surprise that there suddenly is a glacier about to hit them is unsettling.

You’ve seen it before in decisions regarding a new jail, courthouse, school referenda, the health care center, and more. Countless hours were spent by staff, not just on the actual project itself, but on various means to engage the citizens. With very low public interest until the end, they are usually wasted hours at that. 

But they still try. You can read it on the faces of the staff when questioned on why the public is so ignorant about the effort. Ignorant, not being a comment on their intelligence, but meaning they possess a lack of knowledge on the subject. It’s human nature; we all do it.

So for those of you questioning the “road diet,” roundabouts, and continuous TWLTLs, so be it. Remember Rule #1.

For those of you complaining that it’s somehow the city’s fault that you didn’t know the scope and extent of the project—well, sorry, that’s on you. I know one local journalist who has done more than a dozen pieces on the subject. Maybe a small investment in local news for Christmas will have a nice return on your investment. You need to stay engaged.

So, with that, let’s meet in the opinion section to talk about all of it, boldly, unafraid, and with a healthy respect for each other. Keep praying for the Americans still trapped in Afghanistan. Until then, God bless.

Dan Kontos is a paid columnist for the Metro Wire. He chooses his own topics and his opinions do not necessarily represent the staff of the Metro Wire. He lives with his family in Whiting. 

We are seeking a liberal columnist. Anyone with interest should email [email protected]

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