Sometime in the next week or two, the Iowa Department of Transportation will be working with Waverly Utilities to optimally time the stop lights along Bremer Avenue to make sure traffic flows efficiently.
It was one of four possible solutions proposed in an open letter to the public signed by six of the seven Waverly City Council members that was released on Friday.
But on Monday night, it was the highly contentious exchange about the road diet, which converted Waverly’s main thoroughfare from four to three lanes, that took a 50-minute chunk of the council’s time and showed — in words and in tone — how deeply divided the public is on the issue.
With opponents of the road diet packing the chambers and overflowing in the hallway, the council listened to a barrage of highly critical concerns from residents.
At one point Mayor Dean Soash threatened the removal of one of them, a highly vocal woman who had interrupted him, and along with others expressed her frustration that opponents were initially allowed to speak for only 20 minutes, which was later extended by 10 minutes.
There had been other controversial meetings at the council chambers under this administration and others, but the tone of this meeting set an uneasy precedent, which unfolded on camera.
Yet, despite the comments, which urged the council to reverse course, Mayor Soash, oftentimes sounding like a father scolding his unruly kids, stuck to his guns.
“I’m going to reiterate — and you’ve all been told this before — until a year has passed, unless someone from this council that voted ‘yes’ to convert the traffic from four-lane to three-lane … ask to put it on the agenda, it will not be on the agenda,” he said.
Since the council approved a resolution to adopt the DOT’s recommended road diet on Aug. 6, 2018, there have been sporadic traffic jams. They only got worse in recent weeks when the Adams Parkway Bridge closed for repairs, which is expected to be complete by June 28.
Ever since the council voted 6-1 to make the change, some residents have called for the resolution’s veto, and when the construction on the street, also known as Iowa Highway 3, completed last October and the new lines were painted, the same objectors called for its reconversion. Those voices were at their loudest during Monday’s meeting.
TIMING THE LIGHTS
City Administrator James Bronner opened the discussion with a report of a meeting. City staff and DOT and WHKS & Co. engineers had met Monday morning to finalize the stoplight timing along Bremer Avenue. They would be implemented either this week or next and timed as if Adams Parkway, which is currently under construction, was open.
“It was a good discussion this morning,” Bronner said.
At-Large Councilwoman Ann Rathe wondered if the DOT would say how long each light would stay green in each cycle, but Bronner couldn’t give a for-sure answer.
“Everything’s done in sequence,” he said. “It’s a matter of what percentage stays in the main corridor, what percentage is side streets.
“They’ll look at every lighting scenario throughout the corridor. It takes a little while for them to do this.”
He added that the DOT will consider traffic counts from before the Adams Parkway Bridge closure and current levels.
“As far as hints, they’re hoping to extend a little bit on the Bremer corridor, depending on where the heavier traffic lies,” he continued. “That will then come from the side streets as well, because we discussed if you should extend it, and if you get too far, it can really mess up a lot of the rest of it.”
Bronner said the changes would be a “timing shift” all across the stoplights.
“It’s not like a thermostat, where you can program certain hours at (a) precise (time),” he said, “but it’s similar. It’s a much broader zone they can do that in.”
The city administrator said that when Adams Parkway reopens, a lot of the traffic will be alleviated.
Public Works Director and City Engineer Mike Cherry said the DOT is going to monitor the situation on Bremer Avenue with the city.
“At this point, we’ve not discussed that future investment in arrows, possible arrows or turn signals,” Bronner said. “They’re more concerned about through traffic, as the turning traffic doesn’t seem to be much of a hinderance.”
“If there was a silver bullet, we would have shot it by now,” Bronner added.
Two written comments were sent to City Hall. The first from Reggie and Mary Stafford stating their observations that the three-lane configuration was not working, and the second, from Sharon Cashman, who is the June guest council member, who said that the changes in speed limits can affect the severity of accidents.
ROAD DIET OPPONENTS MAKE VOICES HEARD
Stepping up to the lectern first was Waverly resident Heather Beaufore, who said a comment made on KWAY Radio stuck out in her mind from January: The council won’t be “coerced by a bunch of advocates that think they know better.”
“I thank you all for bringing it back up,” Beaufore said. “I… am an advocate. I am an advocate for the citizens of Waverly who feel the council is not supporting them like they were voted in to do.”
She said that the last three generations are built on inquiry, and they want to know the reasons for things being done.
“We want to know if it is good or it was just because somebody said it was good,” she said. “That’s our inquiry.”
Matthew Schneider, founder of Keep Waverly Moving, admitted he “came charging hard at council” about the road diet.
“When I came at them with a softer tone, I realized that what council got was really, really bad information,” Schneider said. “I mean bad information on this deal, and this is what the City of Waverly has to look into.”
He mentioned a study that Keep Waverly Moving has released in a five-page report on its Facebook page, claiming that crashes have increased since the lanes were reconfigured by 28.7% as reported to the DOT. Additionally, he said that police calls for accidents have increased by 44% this year.
He said that two separate polls indicate that 98% of respondents say that Bremer Avenue is less safe now than before the conversion.
“What we did is an exact, matched comparison to what the DOT did,” Schneider said. “That way we can see an accurate comparison of what is exactly going on around here.
“The data doesn’t match, and there might be a good reason for that, but if the data doesn’t match, we need to find out why that is.”
On Wednesday, Schneider wrote an open letter to the council, offering to show them "empirical" evidence that they had been misled with the traffic data.
At the meeting, another resident, Vivian Green, said that the safety and security of the police and fire departments are her priority.
“My question to you is… what are you seeing that I’m not seeing?” she said. “What it is that you believe is correct, and I’m not seeing it that way?
“I see it as a difficult situation for you and for us — it’s frustrating. I don’t understand it. None of us understand why. If you had a system where the traffic was flowing and moving and it was safe for our police officers and our firemen to get to wherever they needed to, and I always say if it was your husband, your son, your wife who needed that … you want those people on site.”
Patricia Coffie, a retired librarian who frequently writes for Waverly Newspapers’ opinion page, repeatedly complimented the council for undertaking the difficult work of city government, but did not mince words when it came to Bremer Avenue.
“I also see that timing of improvements is really important,” Coffie said. “I believe it would be cheaper to redo — even at the $100,000-plus number that (Soash) gave (Monday)… than to continue driving people crazy with unnecessary and mismanaged lanes.”
She also thought that it would’ve been better to wait to do the three-lane conversion after Bremer Avenue had been completed for a year to give downtown merchants time to recover from the road work over the previous two. Her full written statement can be seen on Page A6 in today’s edition.
Michelle Chavez took to the microphone next. She said the four options in the council’s open letter would cause further issues.
“Longer waits make it even harder to turn right and/or next to impossible to turn left during busy periods,” Chavez rapidly reading from her speech displayed on her phone. “This effectively punishes people living in the 2nd Ward or visiting downtown.
“I’m sure it doesn’t matter much of you’re retired, but those of us with children and jobs don’t have all day to wait at intersections with an ‘F’ level of service.”
She said that the DOT and City Council had months to make the fixes to solve congestion problems.
“You couldn’t change them before even listening to us, why should we trust you to change them now?” she said.
“We, as residents can’t ignore what we’ve seen: Emergency vehicles trapped behind traffic jams with nowhere to go; volunteer firemen who cannot legally pass in their civilian vehicle with their blue flashing light that does not give them the right to pass, only give them a visual request to please move over.”
She added that she’d witnessed vehicles using the parking lanes or the center turn lane to pass stopped traffic, sometimes leading to a possible head-on crash in the center lane.
“The four options brought up by the council are ineffective and ignore the will of the residents of this city,” Chavez said. “We the people voted this road diet down just before this council was seated, and you brazenly brought it back up and did it anyway.
“Enough with the prideful hubris and condescension towards residents who disagree with you, City Council. You need to finally listen and act on what we have had to say for months. Prove to us that you can be trusted. We need our four lanes back, and we need a vote now.”
After Chavez left the microphone, Soash stated the allotted time for comments had expired, but relented when the audience expressed its displeasure.
Zach Beschorner addressed the council next.
“We took something that wasn’t a problem, and we made it a problem,” Beschorner said. “Thirty years, I have been driving Bremer Avenue, and I can’t recall being in a traffic jam.
“It’s a hard decision… but it’s time to swallow your pride and get this fixed. Because the way it is right now, it’s stupid, it’s unnecessary, and it’s down-right dangerous. So fix it.”
Next, Craig Mehmen, owner of Mehmen Monuments and former co-owner of Dell’s Diner, said that patrons to the restaurant told him that it was difficult to get around town after the diet. He also noticed a decline in business to The Clothesline, a business his wife and daughter co-own, because customers aren’t able to pull into the driveway.
“We hear people say, ‘It’s very difficult to get here,’” Mehmen said. “One of the things that has been talked about with that road diet — that title really bothers me, it should be road tragedy — is the safety factor.
“I can witness this … the intersection around 3:30, 4 o’clock, I was working out in front of my building.
"The intersection was so plugged up with traffic from both sides, and I heard the sirens. The police officer had to stop his vehicle. He could not get through the intersection.”
He said in emergency situations, “seconds count, not minutes.”
“What we’re running here is not a democracy,” he summed. “It’s like we’re being told what to do. Hopefully, you guys can remember that we elected you people to do things for us, not to tell us what to do.”
Finally, it was the mayor's turn to speak.
Soash told the audience that the assertions of increased accidents due to the road diet are not true. He also claimed that no one would provide the true figures, but Schneider yelled out he had the data in his hands.
The mayor countered that the DOT did a post-construction study of the Bremer Avenue corridor from the completion of the roadwork in October 2018 to the end of April 2019.
“There are 12 crashes in six months on Bremer Avenue from 20th Street West to Eighth Street East,” Soash said. “If you don’t believe those, I picked up from Chief (Rich) Pursell accidents from Jan. 1, 2019, through April 1 of 2019.”
Soash said for the entire Bremer Avenue corridor in 2014, there were 32 accidents, and narrowed to 20th Street West to Eighth Street East, there were 24. In 2015, the numbers were 29 and 19, while in 2016, they were 16 and 10. In 2017, the numbers were 16 and eight.
“2018 was skipped,” he said. “In 2019, the entire city, 72. Entire Bremer Avenue… 26. Twentieth Street West to Eighth Street East, only public — in other words Bremer Avenue itself … 13.
“Take those for what it’s worth. It’s not hearsay.”
He also contested the claims of emergency vehicle response time quoted by three-lane opponents. He said while the Waverly Police Department may have experienced a slow-down, Pursell told the mayor that there hasn’t been a problem with making calls.
Also, Bremer County Sheriff Dan Pickett told him his deputies don’t have a problem. That was opposite of the fears he expressed to Waverly Newspapers in 2016 during a series of reports on road diets prior to construction.
“Heidi Solheim from the hospital has stated publicly, the ambulance crew does not have a problem,” Soash said. “I’ve visited with (Fire Chief Dennis) Happel this morning. There’s been not enough fire calls in the last six, seven months to get an accurate feel for what it is. He admits that some of his volunteers have had some problems, and that’s because of where they may be located.”
He added that he received an email directly to him of three-lane supporters wanting to express their side of the story, but when they pulled up to the Civic Center/City Hall parking lot being full, they were intimidated.
That elicited groans of disbelief from the audience.
“Why don’t you hand it to us all?” Chavez demanded. “Give us a copy!”
Soash then threatened to have her escorted out of the chamber if she were to make another outburst. At that point, the police chief stood up from his usual seat at the city staff table, and Capt. Don Eggleston and another uniformed officer standing outside in the hall approached the doorway ready to act if signaled. It went no further.
The mayor said he visited 16 businesses on Bremer Avenue about the configurations. Only three or four, he reported, would prefer four lanes with one who was more vocal about it.
“One was very adamant that it remain a three-lane,” he said. “Most of them say, ‘Three- or four-lane, it doesn’t really matter.’”
“Overall, the business climate is healthy. There’s a little bit of frustration. … To a T, they recognize the weather has played a big part in shopping.”
Soash added that the major concerns for Waverly include the fate the Green Bridge along Third Street Southeast and the planned reconstruction of the Bremer Avenue Bridge in 2023.
“The bottom line, invariably from every merchant that I heard, talked to, is we have to combat the negativity that is dividing this community,” Soash said to chants of “Change it back.”
“Even if it was voted on (Monday), the probabilities of making a change and restriping, etc., etc., is weeks away,” the mayor continued. “If we find out we’ve made a mistake, I will be the first one to stand up and admit it.”