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Wiza: City council hasn’t actually approved the road diet—yet

By Brandi Makuski

Mayor Mike Wiza said despite what some local news outlets—and council members—are reporting, a road diet for Stanley St. has not been approved.

He expects it will be approved in June, likely by the same 8-3 measure that approved a motion to “prepare to solicit bids” for the new road design during a special common council meeting in May. Wiza said due to the controversy surrounding the project, he feels it’s important for the public to know they still have a few chances to speak on the issue before a final approval.

“All that’s happened right now is that the council approved a motion directing the public works director to prepare the design and other documents so we can seek bids on the proposal for Stanley St.,” Wiza said after the meeting.

The Road Diet

The proposal has been the topic of several public hearings over the past two years, all of which were designed to explain, and take public input on, a proposal placing Stanley St. on a “diet”: transitioning from a four-lane highway to a three-lane road, including a center turn lane and the addition of five-foot bicycle lanes.

On May 15, the council approved a motion to “prepare to solicit bids” on the road diet between Michigan and Indiana avenues, installing a four-way stop at the Minnesota Ave. intersection, and improving pedestrian crossing at Clayton Ave. The vote came after almost four hours of testimony, two hours of which was from the audience, most of whom opposed to adding bike lanes on the busy street.

Wiza read the motion, which was drafted by Ald. David Shorr, aloud three times during the meeting, and shortly after adjournment said he was surprised “no one seemed to catch” the exact wording of the motion, which only calls for the dept. of public works to “prepare to solicit bids in June for two scenarios to restripe Stanley Street”.

Is The Motion Sufficient?

“My intention is, we are going to solicit bids based on the criteria that was [sic] in the motion, and that’s it,” Wiza said by phone on Friday. “It’s up to the council to either accept the bids, reject the bids, rebid the project, or do nothing. If they accept the bids, only then does the project move forward.”

When asked if he planned to investigate whether the motion could be challenged based on its wording, Wiza said, “possibly, but it’s not a major priority for me right now.”

When asked for comment on the motion’s wording, Portage Co. District Attorney Louie Molepske said his office would not investigate unless it receives a specific complaint.

“A verified complaint needs to be filed with the DA’s office before this office will review the matter,” Molepske said via email on May 18.

City Attorney Andrew Beverage agreed the phraseology used in the motion was unusual, but he believes it’s legally sufficient.

“When you say ‘prepare’, the public works department knows what that means,” Beverage said. “It’s specific enough for engineering.”

The public bidding process is outlined in state statutes, Beverage said, adding “I think ‘prepare for bid spec’ is a term of art used for public works.”

But Ald. Mike Phillips said that’s not how the motion was worded, and while he hasn’t decided to formally challenge the vote, he is considering it.

“I don’t think it can go anywhere because of the language. It only says ‘prepare’,” said Phillips, a former council president who was first elected to his council seat in 1995. “Right now, [council majority] can’t do anything without another approval. Before you go out to bid, you have to have a blueprint, and I think that’s something that can come out of ‘prepare’.”

Phillips added if he did challenge the vote, it would likely only delay the project; if it were reworded for a new vote, he said, he expects the tally would be the same. Support for the measure by a majority of the council is concerning to him because, he said, no clear need was ever identified for making a change to Stanley St.

“You’re enticing people to ride their bikes on a highway with big trucks,” Phillips said. “I’m confused why anyone would think this is a good idea. When you move people onto the highway, there’s going to be blood, and it will be on their hands.”

The Shorr Point of View

Shorr said he believes the project has been misunderstood by some in the public, due in part to mischaracterization by some in the media. The picture, he said, isn’t as bleak as some believe.

“I’d say half of the people on the other side of this debate have been polite and cordial; half have not. It’s head-scratching to me that taking bikes off sidewalks is somehow a safety problem,” Shorr said. “It’s harder to see, because of the sharper angle, bicycles coming up on you in your driveway when they’re on the sidewalk. Now they’ll be six feet further out and easier to see, and there’s less chance of hitting a bicycle as you’re backing out of a driveway.”

Shorr, who was just reelected to his second term on the council in April and works as a public policy consultant for various groups on Capitol Hill, said parts of the motion he presented on May 15 were a compromise, though he did not say with whom the compromises were made.

“The major compromise was the one I announced a month earlier, which was trimming back [the road diet] to Indiana [Ave.]; I’d like to see this thing go all the way to Wilshire [Blvd.],” he said.

Shorr said he’s spoken to business owners on Stanley St. who are in favor of the road diet but did not disclose their identities, saying they “have stayed quiet because of the rancor” surrounding the issue.

“Of course, I understand one of the critiques is that Stanley does not have its own special safety problem. But I never claimed that,” Shorr said, adding he had invited a retired Stevens Point police officer on May 15 to speak about bicycle safety concerns across the city, but that individual did not attend the meeting.

“We have a serious safety problem with cars hitting bicycles in crosswalks. All over town,” Shorr said. “It is such a significant problem…from memory, something like half.”

Shorr also pointed out the four-way stop proposed for the Minnesota Ave. intersection would benefit the businesses located there; a goal he said was “front of my mind” from the beginning of the Stanley St. discussions, and pointed to support of the project voiced by local businessman Bill Scheirl of Team Schierl Companies.

“Bill talked about how he knows that the slower the speed going by his convenience stores, the more business he gets,” Shorr said. “It’s easier to pull into a business. A core argument for me, all the way back to the beginning, was that a big reason for me doing this is to help bring in more business to that commercial district. I’ve always looked at that little commercial district as a crucial community asset. If the experience here is like the experience everywhere else, those businesses will get more foot traffic [with the road diet].”

When asked why opposition from multiple business owners on Stanley St. didn’t hold as much weight with Shorr as that of Schierl—who does not have a business there—Shorr replied, “I’m a believer in basing decisions in policy on what’s been the experience, what’s been the data related to the question, and that’s what I’m talking about here. When you go from having a four-lane highway to a three-lane neighborhood street, that has shown the slower people go, the more they spend.”

Shorr said he alone drafted the language of the motion approved May 15, based on, he said, “all of the discussions we’d had over the past two years”. He made copies of the page-long motion and passed them out early-on at the meeting because to his mind, the topic had already seen “pretty robust debate” by then.

“I felt it was important to take everything that had been discussed over the last couple of years and think about an appropriate action step,” he said.

When asked about the wording contained in his motion, specifically why he included the word “prepare”, Shorr said, “it’s an acknowledgment that there’s work to be done. The substance is, ‘go out for bid next month’.”

When pressed as to why the language wasn’t more defined, Shorr replied, “What would the misunderstanding be? It’s connected with going out to bid. The public works department has documentation and criteria and formats for the work it puts out into the market for bids.”

After being asked why he didn’t consult the city attorney in drafting the language of the motion, Shorr said he felt he was capable of doing it himself, adding, “The law also talks about common sense [motion] readings.”

“I rarely use double spacing in a document; why did I use double spacing? I did that so it could be revised,” Shorr said. “If someone, for the very reason you’re raising this question, had asked for the word ‘prepare’ to be stricken, I would have considered that a friendly amendment.”

Shorr then added, “In retrospect, the operative [wording] is, ‘put out for bid’, but I think the 8-3 vote on getting it out to market next month is more consequential.”

What’s Next?

According to Wiza, the Stanley St. design specifications prepared by Public Works Director Scott Beduhn will first come before the city’s new bicycle and pedestrian street safety commission, then on to the board of public works before it comes to the full city council for final approval in June.

Each meeting, Wiza said, is open to the public and has a public comment period, giving constituents up to three additional opportunities to speak up on the project.

Wiza said he plans to speak on the issue.

“I am completely okay with offering my recommendations, my advice, my beliefs…there was a meeting were Tori [Jennings, District 1] chewed me out for making recommendations—that’s my job. The council gets to decide whether to act on them or not,” Wiza said. “So I don’t vote, but you’re damn right I’m going to express my opinion. I would also fully expect our department heads to offer their expert advice and recommendations.”

Editor’s Note: Following the May 17 interview with David Shorr, the Stevens Point Police Dept. released information relating to Shorr’s claim that bicycle crashes were a serious problem. Of 896 total crashes reported in the city between Jan. 1, 2017 through May 18, 2018, eight crashes in the city involved bicycles.