The Waverly City Council during Monday night’s study session had a spirited discussion over the city’s transportation plans, with particular focus on the “road diet” along Bremer Avenue that had consumed much of the public dialogue over the last 18 months.
At-Large Councilman Matthew Schneider, who was one of the leaders against the Iowa Department of Transportation’s suggestion to reduce the traffic flow on the city’s main street from four lanes to three, led the talk focusing on four key areas: emergency response time, a shared bikeway plan, crash rates with motorists, pedestrians and cyclists and economic impact.
The DOT had asked to make the change, as Bremer Avenue also is Iowa Highway 3, as a safety measure to reduce crashes, mainly for crossing and left-turning traffic.
The council voted 6-1, with Ward 5 Councilman Tim Kangas saying “no,” to implement the plan on Aug. 6, 2018, after the then-in-progress construction of the road was complete.
But some of the newly minted councilman’s comments and conclusions didn’t sit well with three of the hold-over members who voted for the road diet and whose seats were not up for re-election in the Nov. 5 city election.
Among Schneider’s points, he saw that emergency vehicle response time along Bremer had improved at different levels depending on where the Waverly Fire Department had to go, according to data processed by City Administrator James Bronner.
Schneider reported that the travel time for firefighters improved overall by about 8% from 2016 to 2019.
Bronner said 2017 and 2018 were not factored in as during that time, Bremer Avenue was under construction.
Further, Schneider noted that the time to get to the fire station improved by about 2% in that time frame, while rural calls improved by 15%.
“One assumption I can make is that the further we get away from something that’s related to Bremer or a call that’s tightly related to Bremer, we see more improvement,” Schneider concluded.
His concern had been volunteer firefighters being able to get to the station during peak traffic hours, which he determined to be between 6 and 10 a.m. and 2 and 6 p.m. However, his greater worry is for those who are going to Waverly Health Center for emergency or urgent care on their own.
And he said it’s not just the data that is backing up his arguments, but the visualization of traffic congestion concerns him. Schneider claimed he received “at least a dozen” reports from his constituents of responders stuck in traffic.
Bronner said that the information he gathered is based on from the point when the Bremer County dispatch makes the fire call page until when the first fire truck leaves the station. However, he said the data gathered was based on maybe one or two calls per month.
According to Schneider, the DOT had said that emergency vehicles can use the center turn lane to pass backed-up traffic if necessary. Ward 4 Councilwoman Heather Beaufore disagreed.
“They’re all supposed to follow the rules,” Beaufore said. “They’re not even supposed to speed, technically.
“We were taught by the book (during an EMT course) that we’re supposed to follow the law while we’re driving the ambulance.”
However, Mayor Adam Hoffman quoted Iowa Code Chapter 321.231, which explicitly allows drivers of authorized emergency vehicles to violate some traffic laws while lights and sirens are used if necessary, but still try to do so without causing an accident.
But, volunteer firefighters going to the station or a scene using their own vehicle with a flashing blue light on their dashes do not have the same privilege as a vehicle with both red and blue lights mounted on the outside of a patrol car, fire truck, ambulance or even a bicycle used by a policeman, Hoffman quoted the code.
“You’re on the side of safety, and I understand that,” Hoffman said to Beaufore.
Ward 1 Councilman Brian Birgen wondered what data Schneider pulled out from what Bronner provided. Schneider said he focused on the morning and afternoon peak times. Birgen later said he will double-check the data.
Hoffman then pointed out that many of the firefighters don’t need to use Bremer Avenue to get to the station, and they may not need the main drag to get to the scene, especially if it’s south of the station or if they just need to cross it on First Street to go north.
Schneider also said some emergency responders are afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation. That made it more difficult to gather information, Schneider said.
Ward 3 Councilman Rod Drenkow found Schneider’s inference “insulting.”
“I don’t know any person on this council who would take retaliation on someone who commented to us,” Drenkow said. “I’ve got a lot of comments on both sides with this, and I can tell you that I would never even dream of trying to retaliate.
“What people tell me in confidence is kept in confidence. If someone comes to our podium and has an opinion, and it goes out into the public, I’m not sure what other people will do. I find it extremely insulting to imply that anyone, either on this council or on our city staff, would take retaliation against someone who made a comment on this issue.”
Schneider explained that city officials went from “many” emergency responders giving their opinions to “zero.”
“There are reasons for that,” he said. “I don’t know what the reasons are here. There’s respect for rank in Waverly… but it’s also a reason that we run into.”
When the topic switched to a shared bikeway plan, Schneider said the DOT never mentioned traffic diversion. He noted that some east-west traffic had shifted to First and Fifth avenues northwest and Second Avenue Southwest to avoid Bremer Avenue.
“No one said they would blow traffic all over the city,” he said. “That is what has happened, at least through observation. I’ve got no data to prove that, but the neighbors do call it ‘Fifth Avenue Expressway.’ I’ve heard it called all sorts of things.”
From time to time, Schneider referred to information he gathered from other communities to form his arguments prior to his election to City Council as founder of Keep Waverly Moving and co-founder of Keep the U.S. Moving. Each time, council members stated they wanted to focus only on Waverly.
“I don’t care about other cities,” Drenkow said. “We’re talking about Waverly here tonight. Let us focus on the City of Waverly. I don’t care what happens in San Francisco or in Los Angeles or in New York. Let’s just focus in here on what happens in Waverly, and the issues that we’re dealing with here.”
At-Large Councilwoman Ann Rathe asked about Schneider’s evidence about increases in crash rates with pedestrians and bikes, and Schneider started to cite what he saw in other communities that use the Vision Zero plan.
“I’m not talking about other cities,” Rathe interrupted. “I’m talking here in Waverly.”
Schneider did say that the cyclist crashes are uncommon.
“We’re going from point-three to one or two a year, we think,” he said. “We just don’t have enough data yet to prove it.”
Rathe said that was her point, that he doesn’t have enough Waverly data.
“You’re extrapolating data from other communities,” she said, “but you don’t have any data (here).”
Hoffman said that many people in town who signed a petition that Schneider gave to City Clerk Carla Guyer earlier were apprehensive about change and may want to remove their names from that document.
“We have the adjustment period, and who knows how long that adjustment period lasts?” Hoffman said. “There’s people who have succumbed to it or whatever you want to say who now appreciate it more than they thought they would before it was implemented. There are also some people who have championed, ‘Hey, it’s more hectic for me to go downtown…’
“Hopefully, the intent from a year and a half ago… I said, ‘Hey, we need to shop locally.’”
Schneider said he doesn’t hate the road diet as a concept.
“I dislike all of the negative impacts that come with it,” he said. “I’m sure it’s great in Cresco… A lane can get 600 to 700 vehicles per lane per hour, but they’re never going to get anywhere close to that in Cresco, but we do.
“It looks prettier with all of the cars in a straight line, but when you have spontaneous order… and when you disrupt that, you can cause a lot of chaos.”