Last year, when the City of Lancaster and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) began talking about the future design of streets making up the STH 35/81/61 corridor that included the downtown square, members of the city council emphasized that they wished to be part of the process so their wishes were heard in the plans. In return, officials from the state essentially told city officials that in the end, they would go along with what city officials wanted.
Last Monday evening, things had significantly changed as a representative from the state told the Lancaster Common Council if the city did not back a plan they rejected each of the past two months, the project would be taken off the schedule.
“We want to make sure we are all on the same page,” Craig Fisher, representative of WisDOT said to the council during the meeting. “If the council votes no, we are going to stop moving forward with the project.”
Fisher went back through the course of the project to that point. When planning began for the project, which includes resurfacing the section of STH 61 as it runs through the city, including the downtown square, WIsDOT had engineers review the streets, the requirements for the new project, and four different plans on how traffic could move through the downtown.
Two of the plans involved making Madison and Cherry streets bidirectional, which would handle the state highway traffic, while the two others would retain the one-way traffic flow the square has now.
During the public review process, Fisher noted that the city and residents rejected bidirectional traffic proposals, which then focused all attention on the two other plans. In one plan, traffic remained largely the same as it is now, while the other plan changed all of the streets to one lane, and switched where the stop signs would be at the Cherry/Madison intersection, stopping northbound traffic in front of City Hall instead.
Fisher said that when the proposals were being worked up, WisDOT wasn’t sure what would work best for the square. “We didn’t know if the single lane alternative would, capacity wise, work out,” Fisher recalled. Noting the results of 20-year traffic models, “it shows that single traffic lane would work very nicely.”
At the end of the year, WisDOT presented the two plans to the city, noting the single lane version was their preferred choice. The common council, however, preferred the two-lane model, and voted to recommend that plan.
Last month, WisDOT came back with a fifth plan. Despite saying they could not keep the stop signs at Cherry and Madison where they were in the one lane plan, the signs would remain where they are as the state retained Cherry Street as two lanes, while the other three streets would be one lane.
The council again voted for the two-lane plan.
Fisher said that having the two-lane option available was a mistake, and the state would not pay for an additional lane. “It’s just a waste of pavement,” Fisher told the council.
Several council members, who were talking amongst themselves and staff as Fisher gave his explanations, felt the reasons given rang hollow. One point was that Fisher said the elimination of two lanes meant less confusion for drivers, as they would not be able to make turns from the wrong lane.
“It seems like every corner you change it to two lanes, so I am missing a point,” Bob Schmidt shot back.
Another issue some on the council had was the reduction of 12 parking spaces around the square. Half the parking spaces on the courthouse side of Maple Street would be eliminated across the street from Walkers Clothing and Shoes to allow traffic to navigate around that corner.
“That truck turn is going to take that much?” Dennis Morgan asked.
Another issue was the required component of adding bicycle lanes to the street, and the impact on sidewalks. Fisher showed the council that there would be bicycle lanes bordering either side of Madison Street north of Maple Street, with the other streets getting one lane.
Schmidt said that under the current plan, this would have a tremendous impact on sidewalks. While some sections downtown have nine-foot-wide sidewalks now, they would be reduced to seven feet, while on Madison Street, counting for lampposts, the sidewalks may be only four feet wide.
“You don’t need five feet,” Fisher rebutted, stating the 20-inch lampposts do not count in the width.
Leroy Ihm said there are a lot of changes considering all the city wanted was “some new concrete…and a bicycle lane.”
Fisher replied “if you want what you want, maybe you don’t want a state project.”
Chad Olmstead wanted to make clear what was being brought to the council Monday night, wondering if they did not vote for the lone plan the state is now giving them, would they lose funding on the project.
Fisher said he did not think funding would be lost, but the state would not move forward in time to make the 2017 schedule.
Facing the idea that no backing would mean no road resurfacing, the council voted 5-3 to amend their earlier vote, backing the lone WisDOT plan. Those voting against were Ihm, Olmstead, and Schmidt.
In other business, the council revisited another one of their past votes, reconsidering their choice to retain as much of the existing sidewalks along S. Adams Street during reconstruction this summer.
Mark Fisher of Strand and Associates - the firm that handles city street projects - told the council that in reviewing the sections of sidewalks, 52 percent of the current pathways would need to be replaced due to damage or replacement of utility lines. Because there are also issues in trying to design a street that deals with current problems, as well as not wanting to have driveways that had steep angles, he was asking the council to think about replacing all of the sidewalks.
The council approved the idea, 7-1, to replace the existing sidewalks with four-foot-wide paths.
While taking no action, the council also gave the consensus that they were alright with the idea of widening the street to 37 feet as well. Fisher told the council that most of the 14 trees that would need to be removed would have to be even if the street was not widened, and none of the trees are beyond where there is sidewalks lining the street.
The council also voted 6-2 to allow Frankie Munns to connect to city water. The city has an ordinance that does not allow those living outside of the city to connect to city water, except in a few key instances.
City Attorney David Helmke had told the council that he felt Munns would be an exception to the prohibition, as her property was in existence prior to the 2003 ordinance, and is in a section that was listed.
All of the homes surrounding Munns, which are outside the city, have water connections.
Schmidt and LaBudda voted against the measure.
Other business included the council approving a request for proposals to come up with branding for the city. City Administrator Steve Winger said that they would be sending the RFP to area firms.
The city has budgeted $50,000 for branding and marketing in 2015.
The council will also have the plan commission review whether or not the city should put up for sale a property on Van Buren Street it had purchased as part of the Walnut Street project. The property had a home on it, which the city demolished, then leveled out the property.
The land is adjoining Memorial Park, and the city has been approached by a realtor wondering if the land would ever be placed back on the market.
With approximately $70,000 spent by the city on the property, the raining, and leveling, LaBudda noted that if the city were to sell, he would hope they would get out as much as they have into the property.
“Why would we want to keep it - we have enough park,” Ihm stated.