Several Hays city commissioners expressed support for a proposed plan to construct three roundabouts on Vine Street during Thursday’s work session.
The commission at next Thursday’s regular meeting will be asked to vote on a design agreement for engineering services at a cost of approximately $400,000. The concept calls for a large, two-lane roundabout shaped like a peanut at the intersection of Vine with 32nd and 33rd streets, and two traditional roundabouts at the intersections of 37th and 41st.
“If the cost estimates are good, which I assume they are, I think that would be the only thing that would change my mind,” Commissioner Sandy Jacobs said. “I want all three if we can afford it and we found a way to pay for it.”
The project is listed as a priority in the city’s capital improvement plan for 2018, with $9 million budgeted. A study conducted in January estimates the actual costs at $7.6 million; that study also was conducted by WSP, the firm submitting the low bid for engineering services.
Funding for design services would be paid out of the Convention and Visitors Bureau contingency. If approved, the construction project likely would be bonded over 20 years.
If the design agreement is approved next week, a tentative timeline calls for the project to be bid in 2019, with construction beginning in 2020.
While several commissioners spoke in favor of moving the project forward, Mayor James Meier said he would prefer to have the option of a phased-in project that would not require the city to construct all three structures.
“I’m still of the opinion that 32nd and 33rd could be done independent of the other two. I wouldn’t want to move forward with an engineering design that doesn’t allow for that,” Meier said. “I haven’t made up my mind. In my mind, it’s not all three or nothing, and quite honestly, I don’t know that I’m interested in doing 37th and Vine. I think there’s a piece of property that it would help, but I just don’t know if I’m interested in helping that piece of property right now.”
The city long has anticipated the site of the former Ambassador hotel at 3603 Vine could be re-developed for commercial business, and city officials have expressed a desire to improve access to that area. For now, the lot remains vacant and reportedly had a high asking price.
The scope of services for the current engineering proposal calls for all three roundabouts to be constructed in short order. The commission could change the parameters if desired to allow for only a partial project, but that could take additional time — and additional money — on the engineering side, said John Braun, the city’s project manager.
“We got a good price from WSP. So if we add flexibility and stretch it out, design could cost more, especially if you piece it out and say we want to build this part first and not this,” Braun said. “I’m just advising such that the contract that we’re presenting tonight is one that gets to the finish line the quickest, all in one package.”
Braun also said it could be possible for the design work to be finished for all three projects, but to build the project in such a way that it could be modular. He also assured commissioners the structures would be large enough to accommodate emergency vehicles.
Vice-Mayor Henry Schwaller was the only commissioner who spoke against the concept, saying he simply isn’t ready to commit to spending so much money. He also suggested a public meeting that would welcome input from residents and property owners who would be directly affected by the changes.
“The public support for this is actually not there. It doesn’t matter where I go: Offices, campus, the grocery store -- people are not very happy with this and they think we’re kind of forcing this on them,” Schwaller said. “I’m hesitant to spend $400,000 when in October of next year we could very much vote this down completely. The pressure is going to be very enormous. I think that two things have to happen. No. 1 we need to know our alternatives, which we’ve discussed a long time ago, but that would be refreshing. And second, we need to be prepared to talk with the public and listen to the business and property owners on Vine as well as major employers and get their feedback on this. I think that’s critical.”
Other commissioners disagreed, saying they have heard from many residents who seem to be in favor of the plan.
Commissioner Chris Dinkel spoke in favor of the full project, but agreed public opinion likely will be mixed. He also noted the $400,000 investment in engineering services could be made in vain if the final project approval is not made before the 2019 election and a future commission opposes the idea.
“I think this commission is very supportive of this. I like the idea of this, whether the public is tremendously enthused or not,” he said. “I think this is an excellent solution. If we push it off, we are putting the $400,000 and the entire idea at risk because you can end up with some very substantial election pressure on the current commission come the end of 2019. I think there’s a lot of things that are really good for a community, really good for a government to do that aren’t necessarily going to be popular, and this may be one of them.”
Efforts to re-configure Vine Street can be dated back to the 1990s. The city in 2015 initiated a Kansas Department of Transportation-funded traffic engineering assistance study looking at the area’s needs. That study expanded into a full study of the Vine Street Corridor and also was conducted by WSP.
The close proximity of Vine Street frontage roads and a lack of road stacking cause traffic congestion and, in some places, difficulty making left turns. The study rated Vine Street access from 35th to 37th as an F, the lowest possible score.
Schwaller also expressed concerns the changes could make navigating Hays more intimidating for visitors from surrounding counties who come to Hays to shop — possibly deterring them altogether.
Commissioner Shaun Musil agreed, but said he already had heard from out-of-towners who currently avoid stopping at Vine Street on their way through town due to the difficulty of making left turns.
“I do in a way echo Henry’s comments on people from out of Hays, it’s going to be nerve wracking for them,” Musil said. “That being said ... I’ve talked to many travelers that have gone through Hays and get off at say 24/7 (gas station on Vine) and say they will never stop in Hays again because of how dangerous it is to get back on. We know the locals go over to the stoplight, get back on. To me, that makes me nervous when people say they’re not stopping in Hays.”
Jacobs said she believes the roundabouts are a “great solution,” and she is confident locals and out-of-towners alike will learn to navigate the roundabouts if they are built.
“I give a whole lot more credit to people. People are going to learn to drive it,” she said. “They may cuss the first time they see it, and then they’re going to figure it out.”