The Hays City Commission in a 4-1 vote Thursday agreed to pursue a three-roundabout concept in the Vine Street corridor by approving a nearly $400,000 agreement for engineering services.
The design phase is expected to take approximately 18 months, with construction tentatively slated to begin in 2020 — if the final proposal is approved by the city commission at a later time.
Most commissioners favored the concept, saying they believe the roundabout solution is the most effective proposal received so far to address traffic concerns on the north end of Vine.
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.
“It’s no secret I like roundabouts, but it’s not about roundabouts solely. It’s about traffic solutions,” Commissioner Sandy Jacobs said. “I think this is the only solution that’s really been brought forward that everybody, early in our conversations, thought it was a good idea. I think it’s going to improve the economic development along that corridor, that’s as important to me as the traffic flow. And again, it’s the entry into our community.”
Vice-Mayor Henry Schwaller IV cast the lone dissenting vote, saying he believes the city is “jumping the gun” by moving such a costly project forward so soon. Schwaller also said the intersection of 32nd and 33rd with Vine is of utmost importance, noting the abnormally high number of accidents that occur there.
“That intersection is critical. I am less enthusiastic about the other two. This is a substantial sum of money to design and it should be, because when you don’t design a roundabout correctly — as in many cities where I’ve been -- you have a lot of problems,” Schwaller said. “That’s a big concern for me, both the size and scope of the project. Second and most important in addition to the safety though, is the fact this actually has been a very short process. And that’s where I respectfully disagree with my fellow commissioners.”
Schwaller said he still has unanswered questions and would prefer to delay the vote.
This specific three roundabout proposal stems from a 2015 traffic impact study that received state funding. The city then expanded that study into a full evaluation of the Vine Street corridor. The studies were conducted by design firm WSP, which also will be providing the engineering services after Thursday’s vote.
An average of 31 accidents occur on this stretch of Vine Street every year, according to city data. The intersection of 32nd and 33rd with Vine and the frontage road has been a major point of discussion, as the accident rate at that intersection is 2.5 times higher than the state average for urban intersections, said John Braun, city project manager.
Braun said the roundabouts would be designed to accommodate both emergency vehicles and semis pulling trailers up to 53 feet in length. Oversized loads could drive through roundabouts and pass through Vine Street just like they do now, he said.
Potential benefits of roundabouts could include providing safer pedestrian crossings and improving the aesthetics of the area, which is often the gateway to the city, Braun said.
“Roundabouts would decrease congestion. Congestion on Vine Street is bad at certain times and will get significantly worse and more frequent as traffic increases if no action is taken,” he said. “The roundabouts would provide a safer roadway environment by disconnecting the frontage roads and eliminating conflict points as left turns cross traffic.”
Three residents attended Thursday’s meeting to express concerns with the proposal, including the owners of Pheasant Run cafe, 3201 Vine. Scott and Sue Jordan at times fought back emotion as they discussed how the roundabout at that intersection permanently could reduce access to their parking lot. Preliminary illustrations indicate one of their entries could be closed off, leaving only one point of access.
“Instead of having two access points to our business, we’ll only have one. That’s basically hamstringing us, because when I travel and I look for a place to eat, I’m looking for easy in, easy out,” Scott Jordan said. “For somebody that’s not familiar, it’s not going to be an easy in, easy out for them and we do not have access from the frontage road, which gives us access from all the hotels.”
The Jordans also expressed concern about what likely would be a lengthy construction process in the intersection near their business. When Vine underwent a major construction project many years ago, the family struggled to stay in business, he said.
“The thing I keep thinking over and over every night, not only is this my family’s business that we’ve had for 36 years in this community, but I also represent the families of the people I employ that live here and spend money here,” Scott Jordan said. “It’s very important to keep them paid and to keep everything going.”
Jacobs said businesses along Eighth Street had similar concerns when that street was rebuilt last year, but noted city staff and the contractors were able to coordinate efforts so disruptions were minimal. She said she believes city staff would work toward the same collaboration for Vine Street businesses.
Jordan also asked why the city failed to implement a different solution by purchasing part of the parking lot at Big Creek Crossing after former restaurant Montana Mike’s closed its doors and the lot sat vacant for some time. That could have provided an opportunity to align 32nd and 33rd streets across Vine, potentially helping to solve the traffic difficulties.
Schwaller said the city commission had considered it, but decided against the project when cost estimates came in significantly higher than the budgeted amount.
Another solution that had been discussed in years past was providing reverse access to businesses in that area, but doing so likely would have required the city to exercise eminent domain and even tear down occupied homes to build a new street, Mayor James Meier said, noting the city has been discussing Vine Street traffic problems for a long time.
“I’m not very excited about using the power of the government to take somebody’s property just because we don’t like roundabouts. I think too that really only solves problems on the south side of Interstate. And three, I don’t think businesses are going to be any more excited about having access to their businesses be in the back than they would be about the roundabouts,” he said. “Traffic signals have been brought up. We have discussed that early on: Why can’t we just put up a light signal at 37th and call it a day? … Anything that we do has to be approved by KDOT. … They pretty much said if you want to put a stoplight at 37th and Vine, then you have to get rid of the light on the south side of the interchange. You’d kind of be switching out one problem for another.”
Meier said he does not believe the roundabouts will be a perfect solution, but said it seems to be the proposal that would address most of the street’s traffic issues.
Commissioner Chris Dinkel read many of the comments he has seen on social media regarding the proposal as he spoke in favor of moving forward with the possible roundabouts.
“There were a lot of things that were brought up that I want to just address very briefly because there’s misconceptions. … ‘Hays people can’t drive.’ I think that’s dumb, and that’s a terrible reason to not progress something. If that were the case, then we shouldn’t build roads at all,” he said. “ ‘We should be spending our money on water instead of on roads.’ We are spending money on water — that’s progressing, that’s a different line item, that’s an entirely different project, so this is not one or the other. ‘The city is broke’ — that’s not true. ‘Don’t raise my taxes’ — we’re not going to. Part of this comes down to the city is actually very well-managed.”
Funding for the $400,000 study is to be paid from the Convention and Visitors Bureau contingency fund. Total construction costs are estimated at $7.6 million if the project moves forward. It also is possible those costs could be paid using transient guest tax revenue, commonly known as a hotel bed tax, City Manager Toby Dougherty said, noting the city is looking at options that would not involve raising taxes for residents.