By BECKY KISER
Despite the opposition shown by a standing-room only crowd at Thursday night’s Hays City Commission meeting, homeowners in northwest Hays were unable to convince a majority of commissioners to change their minds about the planned extension of West 37th Street.
As part of the $9.3 million project to build four traffic roundabouts on north Vine Street, West 37th would be extended to the west from Vine and West 41st would be realigned to meet that extension. A new public street would be constructed south of the new intersection to maintain access to the existing gas station south of West 37th.
Four traffic roundabouts are to be constructed on Vine Street/U.S. Highway 183 at 32nd/33rd, 37th, 41st Streets, and a partial roundabout at the eastbound exit ramp of Interstate 70.
Representing the Hays 37th Street Association, homeowner Ryan Rymer said the group’s chief concern is keeping the neighborhood safe from increased traffic.
“It’s one in which you can raise a family, where the hustle and bustle of Vine Street is distant, the concerns of through-passing criminals are few, crime occurrence is low, homes are affordable, and they are not likely to flood. The potential of a connection to Vine Street negates all the reasons why we chose this area,” Rymer told the commission.
Stop signs at 37th and Fort and 35th and Fort were recently changed at those intersections to now stop east/west bound traffic. The switch was made at the suggestion of City Commissioner Sandy Jacobs, who lives on 38th, as a compromise within the proposal.
“I think their concerns about traffic going through their [neighborhood] quickly can be waylaid if [traffic on 37th] has to stop at Willow, then they have to stop at Fort, then they have to stop at Skyline,” she said last week.
Jacobs told the Hays 37th Street Association on Thursday she still supports the street extension as part of the North Vine Street Corridor Improvement Project.
“I’ve been fact finding. I’ve done a lot of soul searching. I’ve driven up and down those streets,” Jacobs said. “I trust the city staff and I trust our engineers and I trust the people that are bringing these plans before us and recommend to us what is the best.”
Before he spoke, Rymer presented a petition with signatures of more than 100 residents opposed to the street extension.
The discussion started with a review of the 37th/Skyline/41st configuration by City Project Manager John Braun who explained the city has three basic options: Close 41st Street, reroute 41st between Phillips 66 gas station and the Baymont Inn, or connect 37th at Skyline.
The 37th/Skyline connection is favored by the city and “this has been the desired connection to Vine Street since the 2012 Comprehensive Plan,” according to Braun.
“The problem on the Vine Street corridor is the frontage roads. They do need to be disconnected or set back further from Vine. The situation will only get worse [with the installation of roundabouts] and it’s something we do need to address,” he said.
Another of the residents’ representatives, Daniel LaBarge, and the commission both agreed during the meeting the number one goal is to connect 41st Street. The presentations by LaBarge and Rymer drew applause from the audience. Several other people also spoke against the proposed plan, also mentioning possible drops in property values.
The city and its engineering firm WSP first considered an initial concept of disconnecting the frontage roads and reconnecting 41st between Phillips 66 and Baymont Inn.
“This design was initially pursued due to the uncertainty of [the status of] the former Ambassador Hotel property,” said Braun. “Upon further examination, this option proved to be undesirable.”
Braun explained why the first two options were discarded, outlining the pros and cons of each scenario.
Closing 41st Street would cost between $890,000 and $1.5 million – the least expensive construction cost among the three options – while isolating and disconnecting existing businesses and also hinder future property development. It would also push more traffic to 32nd and 33rd Streets.
Rerouting 41st between the gas station and motel is the most direct reconnection of 41st to Vine. It would cost approximately $1.8 million. It has a narrow right-of-way and would require more property be taken from nearby businesses. The gas station fuel tanks and canopy would have to be relocated. “There’s a higher probability for congestion in that area,” Braun noted.
Vice-Mayor Shaun Musil opposes the 37th Street extension to Skyline.
“I’ve said from day one, and I know I’m odd man out here, that I thought this is a bad idea. I see no gain. If there was a gain for my community, I’d be 100 percent for this,” he said.
Musil made a motion to support the second option of rerouting 41st between Phillips 66 and Baymont Inn. The motion died for lack of a second.
Knowing all the drawbacks of the other options, the commission earlier decided on moving forward with the 37th and Skyline option, according to Braun.
The cost is estimated at $1.6 million and is in line with the Comprehensive Plan.
“This allows for the best traffic flow, facilitates future development of adjacent properties and does not impact existing businesses. It does allow convenient access to Vine from residential neighborhoods, limits the right of way acquisition to vacant properties and there’s no taking of active business properties. And there’s less utility conflicts with this option.”
Many residents in the affected neighborhoods have been in contact with Braun, other city staff and the city commissioners the past few weeks.
Braun talked about some of their questions, pointing out that 37th would not become an arterial thoroughfare or be widened but “simply provide access to Vine and parking would not be removed.”
Braun said Skyline can and does handle two-way traffic “just fine now and will continue to do so in the future.” That statement drew chuckles of disagreement from the audience.
Traffic will likely increase on 37th, Braun acknowledged, but “it will not be significantly more. Most people will continue using 33rd and 41st Streets as they do now.” Signs prohibiting truck traffic would also be posted.
Newly appointed commissioner Eber Phelps, who has served two previous terms, recalled previous street projects on 17th and 27th where residents feared would increase traffic accidents, but did not.
“[This is] almost like déjà vu,” Phelps said.
Many residents on 32nd and 33rd Streets have been in contact with Commissioner Ron Mellick, he told the audience.
“Many people on 34th, 35th, 36th, 37th, and 38th use 32nd and 33rd to access Vine now. … The only thing they’re asking is residents on 37th help shoulder and share a little of the traffic load,” Mellick said.
Mayor Henry Schwaller told the association he empathizes with them.
“The fear of the unknown is huge,” he said. “It’s possible that all those things [you’ve expressed concern about] could happen, but the probability is low. And I do admit there are some problems. But there really no clear alternatives that will benefit everyone. … We will do our best to configure this in a way that’s safe.
“Yes, there are some things we didn’t address. Those are speculations. We don’t know.”
“The reason wasn’t just because of 41st. The thought by staff and other city commissioners was that you’d like to go to Vine Street,” he told the 37th Street area residents. “That would be beneficial…now you won’t have to go down to 32nd and 33rd, and go through two roundabouts. Now you’ll just have one. I’m not defending it. I’m just telling you the discussion that was had at the time.”
Schwaller has previously said he opposes the current traffic roundabout plan and has voted against related agenda items.
“It was thought the neighborhood would like access to Vine Street in a more efficient way and it is not [purposely designed] to let more people into your neighborhood. Might that happen? Yes. I don’t think it will happen as often as you believe it will.”
Schwaller also noted the plan allows for quicker access north of town, including to the Highway 183 Bypass and the Ellis County landfill.
By the end of next week, 60 percent of the corridor design will be complete, Braun reported. Final plans are due by Dec. 9 with construction expected to start in the summer of 2020.
The proposed $9.3 million project would be funded by a $6 million federal grant and a dedicated 20-year 2 percent increase in the transient guest tax.