One year ago, the Waverly City Council voted to change the configuration of the town’s main street while it was still under construction.
The Iowa Department of Transportation had recommended that Bremer Avenue, also known as Iowa Highway 3, be reduced in lanes from four to three. After a 2016 vote to keep the status quo, the current council voted 6-1 to adopt a “road diet” on Aug. 6, 2018, with construction being completed that October.
However, many members of the public have objected to the decision. Over several months, many speakers during the public comments section of council meetings and study sessions have demanded it be reversed.
On the eve of the decision’s anniversary, the lane-reduction opponents may finally get their wish.
During Monday night’s meeting, Ward 5 Councilman Tim Kangas, who was the only “no” vote on the resolution for the road diet, took his time during the council comments segment to ask that its review be placed on the Aug. 19 council agenda.
In his prepared statement, which he read, he said the vote to convert Bremer Avenue was based on the DOT’s data that it would improve safety.
“Concerns were raised by citizens and council about increased congestion, travel times, emergency response times and among others,” Kangas said. “Since the conversion many of these concerns have been repeatedly brought before council. In addition, concerns were brought to the council about the information presented by the DOT.”
He added that there have been many strong opinions that have been based on “different information” or “wild and inaccurate speculation.” However, he believed that the debate over Bremer Avenue in town, which had led to an in-depth TV report recently, has spread outside of Waverly’s city limits, and he’s concerned over it.
“Council rules prohibit revisiting a resolution for one year after a resolution has been acted on unless brought up by a member of the winning vote,” Kangas said. “Since we are now at the one-year mark of that vote, and I have been unable to bring this up until now.”
Kangas would like to have the discussion for Aug. 19 include potential costs to reconvert back to four lanes as well as to revisit the safety data that had previously been presented and what has happened since to see if Bremer Avenue is safer.
In the opinion of Keep Waverly Moving co-founder Matt Schneider, that isn’t the case. He wasn’t surprised Kangas made his request.
“The crashes don’t go away,” Schneider said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “When you look at what the DOT said, a 19-47% reduction (of crashes), obviously, that isn’t happening.”
However, they haven’t gone up exponentially, said Schneider, who is also considering a run for either mayor or the at-large council seat. They’ve just switched to rear-end accidents.
“From a public-safety aspect, that is a bit of a concern,” he said. “Those are fairly dangerous crashes. It’s not like we had no injuries when we had sideswipes, but there’s just less chance of an injury on those sideswipes.”
However, Nick Humpal, DOT assistant District 2 engineer, said residents in Waverly shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on short-term results. He added that even when factoring in possible non-reportable accidents — those that have property damage less than $1,500 — accident rates have gone down in town.
“We look at things over several years in a broader picture,” Humpal told Waverly Newspapers by phone from his Mason City office on Tuesday morning. “There’s ups and downs throughout the years, and that’s what we continue to evaluate through this process.”
Humpal said the DOT has run an analysis for the first six months after the completion of construction — Oct. 29, 2018, through April 29 — and found 14 reportable crashes on Bremer Avenue. He projected the total could be 28 by the end of October this year.
“It would have been 13 below the average from 2008 to 2016 of 41 crashes per year,” Humpal said. “We have no way of keeping track, recording, documenting any of the other crashes that aren’t reported, and that’s following state code.
“We had those same calls (of assistance for minor accidents) prior to it being a three-lane, but we don’t have any records to indicate what they are. We know that there’s more (calls) throughout the state, but this is how we analyze the crash data. Typically, those that are less than $1,500 aren’t as big of a safety issue, because they are usually minor, the small fender-benders.”
And, the accident rate debate isn’t the only issue with the road diet. Schneider said businesses along Bremer Avenue have been negatively affected by the changes.
“Beyond that, what is going on with the general economics of the road diet?” he posed. “Those are questions that we really haven’t discussed.”
In 2016, DOT staff made three presentations to the public and to the City Council showing the benefits of reducing the number of lanes from four to three — a travel lane in each direction and a center turn lane. Initial diagrams showed bike lanes included, but the final design had them dropped in favor of “buffers.”
On Sept. 6, 2016, a previous council voted 6-1 to keep the four-lane configuration, with Ward 4 Councilman Mike Sherer the only one supporting the road diet. In April 2018, while the construction was still going on, Ward 2 Councilman Dan McKenzie suggested the current council revisit the matter.
His rationale was that when the council voted in 2016 to keep the four-lane alignment, it could be revisited when a second east-west thoroughfare was established. At the time of the suggestion, the final phase of the Cedar River Parkway, which is now scheduled to be open next week, was ramping up with the new bridge being built.
The DOT staff returned to give a review of their presentation, which included how much crashes have were reduced by similar conversions in Cresco, Clear Lake and Sioux Center. Although public attending the presentation was almost universally against the conversion, the council, citing unnamed supporters who contacted them via email and face-to-face, approved the resolution.
Over the next 36 hours, residents called on Mayor Dean Soash to veto the resolution. However, citing the 6-1 margin, he said the veto would only be symbolic and signed it.
Waverly Newspapers left a message with Kangas to ask for a follow-up to his comments, which had not been returned, as of Tuesday afternoon.
Earlier this year, Soash told a crowd during a meeting that a review of the Aug. 6, 2018, decision won’t be taken up, and the road diet isn’t likely to be changed until a full-city traffic study is conducted during the spring of 2020.
Humpal understood there have been early hiccups in the traffic flow along Bremer Avenue. He referred to the Adams Parkway Bridge closure earlier this summer, which increased the traffic count by 30%, and also the fact that the initial striping paint washed away from last winter’s snowfall, adding to some confusion.
“We’ve also adjusted the signal timings pretty considerably,” he said. “We’re getting better flows and operations now. We’re hopeful that the changes that we’ve done, we’ll kind of see a plateau and we won’t see a spike in crashes in the remaining part of the year.”
Schneider said the council should not have waited until now to revisit the issue. He also has reservations over the one-year rule.
“Obviously, you don’t want council going in and voting on a decision and then have another council member try to reverse it the next week later, the next month later,” he said. “What I think is important is that we really need to have mechanisms inside our government that when public safety is questioned or if we do make a wrong decision, that we have the ability to quickly change those decisions.
“Council’s human. We’re all human. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to make bad policy decisions. It’s important that we correct those.”