Tuesday evening in the Village of Whiting, their Public Works & Parks Committee met to discuss the adoption of the Portage County Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan for Whiting. However, a large amount of the conversation at the meeting focused on the possibility of implementing a road diet on the portion of McDill Ave, also known as County Hwy HH, that passes through the village.
The two issues – adopting the bike/ped plan and traffic-calming McDill – are separate considerations, yet are intertwined.
For the record, during the deliberation on the agenda item listed as “Adoption of the Portage County Bicycle & Pedestrian Plan”, the Whiting PW&P Committee voted 4-1 in favor of recommending that the Whiting Village Board adopt the plan. My understanding is that this will now go to the Village Board for consideration. If approved by the board, the Portage County Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan will become an official planning document for Whiting.
Before discussing what happened during the PW&P meeting, I want to clarify some relevant jurisdictional issues. In addition, I want to highlight specific entries from the bike/ped plan that pertain to McDill/HH. I also want to provide some context regarding implementation of a road diet for McDill. There are some complexities in the political process surrounding all of this, so it seems best to provide a clear review of these basics in order to minimize misunderstandings and confusion over the issues of plan adoption and traffic calming on McDill.
Jurisdiction issues relevant to the bike/ped plan and McDill/HH
Portage County formally approved the bike/ped plan as an official planning document in April of 2014. Nevertheless, county municipalities control most of the transportation policy decisions within their boundaries and must individually adopt the plan if they wish to use it as part of their municipal planning efforts. Whiting’s adoption of the bike/ped plan would provide them a template for improving the bicycling and walking environment within the village.
Between Post Rd and Hoover Ave, Hwy HH passes through multiple jurisdictions. The portion within Whiting runs from Post Rd east to just past the Green Circle Trail crossing. The east edge of the stretch within the Whiting village limits is a bit more than halfway from the Green Circle to Olympia Ave, which is the next street to the east. Eastward beyond this point, Hwy HH generally forms the boundary between the Village of Plover and the City of Stevens Point.
The county bike/ped plan includes recommendations for McDill/HH between Post Rd and Hoover Ave. Since this section of roadway spans multiple jurisdictions, the specific recommendations are split among multiple tables in the plan.
The recommendation for the section within Whiting can be found on p. 77 of the plan in Table 46. In this table, it indicates that 1.05 miles of McDill/HH between Post Rd and the Plover village boundary are recommended to have bicycle lanes or urban shoulders. A comment in this entry states, “Convert to 3-lane plus bike lanes; traffic volumes support lane reduction.” It is this comment that most directly intertwines the bike/ped plan and traffic calming for McDill.
Currently, this section of McDill has four standard travel lanes, two in each direction. This comment is a recommendation to change the cross-section to have a single standard travel lane in each direction, a center two-way-left-turn-lane (TWLTL) for driveway and cross street access, and a bike lane in each direction at the outer edge of the roadway surface adjacent to the curb. The term “3-lane” refers to the westbound-TWLTL-eastbound triplet of lanes. Such a 4-lane to 3-lane conversion with bike lanes is what is commonly referred to as a road diet. Space from the removed standard travel lane is reallocated to create the new bike lanes, which means that a road diet can be implemented without expanding the curb-to-curb roadway distance.
As far as the section of Hwy HH east of the portion through Whiting, the recommendation for this section can be found on p. 76 of the plan in Table 42, which specifies recommendations for the Village of Plover. The table entry recommends bicycle lanes or urban shoulders running from the Whiting village boundary east 0.74 miles to the Stevens Point city limits. This stretch covers well past Hoover Ave and goes up to the intersection on the west side of I-39 providing access to the interstate.
Although Hwy HH forms the boundary between Plover and Stevens Point on this section, the plan seems to indicate that the section immediately east of Whiting is within Plover. The section of Hwy HH within the relevant table for Stevens Point (Table 33 on p. 73) is for the section running further east out to Burbank Rd. (There is also a second entry in this Stevens Point table for Hwy HH, but this seems to be redundant as it completely overlapped by the section to Burbank.)
Whether the portion of Hwy HH east of Whiting falls within Plover or Stevens Point is immaterial from Whiting’s perspective. The point is that the entire section of McDill/HH from Post Rd to Hoover Ave is recommended by the plan to have bike lanes. However, only the portion through Whiting has the comment about a conversion to a 3-lane road plus bike lanes.
It is worth mentioning at this point that the portion of McDill/HH east of Whiting up to Hoover Ave currently has bike lanes. This means that if bike lanes were added to the portion of McDill within Whiting, then this would create a continuous bike lane along Hwy HH between Post Rd and Hoover Ave.
There is one other recommendation in the bike/ped plan that pertains to McDill/HH within Whiting and is specific to the intersection of McDill and School. This recommendation can be found in the Safe Routes to School portion of the plan, labeled as Appendix J of the plan but found as a separate PDF document in the electronic version of the plan. (The portion of the SRTS document containing only the pages specific to McDill Elementary School can be downloaded as a PDF from this link. The full SRTS PDF document is extremely long – over 220 MB – and can be downloaded from this link.)
Pages 4-57 through 4-59 of the SRTS document show a list of recommendations for McDill Elementary School. Recommendation 3.2.23 on page 4-59 addresses the issue that “McDill Avenue (HH) can be difficult to cross” and recommends to “add pedestrian refuge islands to the McDill Avenue/School Street intersection when reconstruction is required”.
My clarifications above of where McDill/HH passes through Whiting, Plover, and Stevens Point are mainly for reference to the appropriate tables within the bike/ped plan. From a jurisdictional point of view, none of these municipalities have absolute control over any portion this roadway. County Hwy HH is under the jurisdiction of Portage County. My understanding is that as a county road, Portage County has the final say on any changes made to McDill/HH. Although Whiting may make requests to the county regarding how it wants the portion of McDill passing through it to be striped, the county has no obligation to satisfy such requests.
It is this final point, the fact that McDill falls under the jurisdiction of the county, that complicates the efforts by Whiting residents to calm traffic on McDill. Their representatives within the Whiting governmental structure are not the final decision makers on any effort to restripe McDill Ave.
Context for traffic-calming McDill Ave
McDill Ave through Whiting is primarily residential. The posted speed limit is 25 MPH. McDill Elementary School lies three blocks south of McDill on School St, and the intersection of School and McDill is a key crossing for children walking and bicycling to school. To the east, a well-traveled forested portion of the Green Circle Trail crosses McDill. Ladder-style crosswalks are painted on the roadway surface at both of these crossings.
Unfortunately, traffic tends to travel much faster than the speed limit through this corridor. McDill is four lanes wide in this area, two in each direction. I don’t have official data on lane widths, but using Google Maps to measure, it appears that the curb-to-curb distance is about 50’, with outer lanes about 13-14’ wide and inner lanes about 11-12’ wide.
This 4-lane design of McDill with ample lane widths gives a perceptual sense to people driving that this stretch is a highway rather than a residential street. Correspondingly, there is an intuitive “feel” that it is appropriate to drive 35 MPH or faster on this section.
Because of the two key crossings of McDill for people walking and bicycling, the speed of traffic upon McDill is a critical safety consideration. For residents along McDill, traffic noise is a quality-of-life issue, and faster traffic is noisier traffic. One consequence of the current 4-lane design of McDill is to allow people who drive to conveniently pass slower traffic, thus enabling those who prefer to drive 10-20 MPH or more over the speed limit.
One resident along McDill, Susan Lasecki, has told me that she has been taking action for traffic calming on McDill for a couple of years. Her efforts have included knocking on doors of all residents along McDill to gather petition signatures in support of traffic calming. She has spoken to village and county officials about the issues with McDill, including Whiting Village President Paul Stroik and Portage County District 17 Supervisor Jerry Walters, who represents residents along this stretch of McDill. She recently started an online petition on the change.org website titled “Make McDill Ave. quieter and safer for the community.”
An opportunity for cost-effectively restriping McDill for a road diet is arising early this summer, as the county plans to resurface the portion of County Hwy HH that includes this portion of McDill through Whiting. Stevens Point resident Neil Prendergast sent me e-mail communication he had with Portage County Highway Commissioner Nathan Check about this resurfacing project.
According to Commissioner Check, he has been in contact with Whiting officials about the possibility of restriping McDill for traffic-calming purposes. Although he is open to the option of such restriping, Commissioner Check states that he would need to perform a traffic study before agreeing to any changes. Such a traffic study would include such items as current traffic volumes, future traffic projections, crash histories, and impacts to turning movements. Commissioner Check also stated that he has been in contact with Wisconsin Department of Transportation staff to gain a better understanding of the scoping and costs of traffic studies related to road diet conversions.
Besides these technical considerations, Commissioner Check would also expect a public hearing to take place to gauge resident interest in traffic calming for McDill before proceeding with any traffic study.
As for timeline, Commissioner Check stated that project construction would begin in early May and that paving would not be completed until mid-June. If a final decision to restripe McDill with a road diet can be made by then, such restriping can be painted at that time. Otherwise, the existing 4-lane striping would be placed on the roadway surface.
One procedural item I am still unclear on is who is responsible for making any final decision on whether or not to restripe McDill for a road diet. Although Commissioner Check might conduct a traffic study whose outcome could demonstrate the appropriateness of a road diet, an outcome that might also have strong public support, I do not know if this would empower Commissioner Check to move ahead with such restriping.
Portage County has a Highway Committee, a legislative body that takes action on items affecting Portage County highways. Does the Portage County Highway Committee need to approve a road diet for McDill? Furthermore, would any such vote from the Highway Committee merely be a recommendation to the Portage County Board of Supervisors, who would be charged with the final decision on whether or not to restripe McDill with a road diet? I need to do more investigation to get answers to these questions.
Since mid-June is not far off, it seems that time is short for moving through the process of approving a road diet for McDill in order to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the county’s resurfacing project. If Commissioner Check can act autonomously to make the decision of how to stipe McDill after repaving is complete, then the timeline is merely tight. However, if approval by the Portage County Highway Committee and the Portage County Board of Supervisors is required, then the timeline is critically short and communication with these entities needs to start immediately so that they can make a quick informed decision once a traffic study conducted by Commissioner Check is complete.
Summary of discussion at the Whiting Public Works & Parks Committee meeting
This past Tuesday, the Whiting Public Works & Parks Committee deliberated on adopting the Portage County Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan. Introductory comments by Chair Bill Taugner indicated why the adoption of the plan would be good for the village.
Susan Lasecki spoke from the audience about how the plan recommends a road diet for McDill Ave. She handed out to committee members copies of petitions containing signatures collected both from knocking on doors along McDill and from her online petition. Her comments emphasized safety and quality-of-life issues associated with McDill, and she stated that there is overwhelming support among those who live along McDill for implementing traffic-calming measures.
I spoke up to ask for clarity on process and jurisdictional issues surrounding any change to the striping on McDill. Chair Taugner pointed out the opportunity to implement a road diet due to the upcoming county resurfacing project. Village President Paul Stroik clarified that McDill/HH is indeed a county roadway under county jurisdiction. The process from Whiting’s perspective is that PW&P can make recommendations to the Whiting Village Board as to whether or not they prefer McDill to have a road diet. The Whiting Village Board would then need to vote on whether or not to confirm this recommendation. But at that point, Whiting would merely be empowered to advocate to the county for its preference. It would be exclusively up to Portage County to decide how it wants to stripe McDill in completing its resurfacing project. Portage County may disregard the preferences of Whiting in making this decision.
Another member of the audience (I did not get his name) expressed concerns about any expense to the village should the county implement a road diet in completing their resurfacing project. He also expressed concerns about congestion on McDill, feeling that a 4-lane road was necessary for the existing traffic volume.
President Stroik stated his understanding that any road diet implementation would only involve paint on the roadway without implementing any concrete medians. As such, there should be no cost to the village since the county needs to stripe McDill to complete its project and the specifics of the striping pattern will not affect the cost. President Stroik also stated that if the county were to ask the village to pay for some portion of the road diet implementation, then that would give him pause and he would have to come back to the village to ask for approval for such an expenditure.
President Stroik added that before taking any action specific to McDill, he would want the village to hold a public hearing. He wants to be certain that there is strong public support for a road diet on McDill before any village deliberation on the issue.
Lasecki spoke to the question of whether McDill would function well with a road diet. She stated her understanding, based on communication with county officials, that traffic volumes were low enough to warrant a road diet. She also emphasized the need to reduce speeds along McDill for safety reasons and how a road diet would encourage speed reduction.
President Stroik mentioned that speeding is in part an enforcement issue. To augment enforcement, President Stroik also expressed his interest in installing high-visibility LED signs at the crossings at School and the Green Circle in order to encourage traffic to slow at these crossings. He estimated the cost of such signage at $12,000.
The same (name unknown) audience member asked what the village gains by adopting the bike/ped plan. He also asked if adoption of the plan locks the village into implementing its recommendations and whether future changes to plan recommendations could be made. Other committee members asked whether the committee needed to decide on plan adoption that evening and how any delay might affect county activity on the McDill project.
Responses by President Stroik and Chair Taugner stated that adopting the plan would communicate to the county and its municipalities support for the plan by the village. Adoption could also improve the likelihood of success with regard to any future grant opportunities for improving bicycling and walking within the village. President Stroik pointed out that, regardless of the outcome of any decision on adopting the bike/ped plan, conversation with the county about traffic-calming McDill would continue.
I spoke to clarify that the bike/ped plan is merely a plan, just like other plans the village adopts such as its comprehensive plan. As with any plan, it is merely a guide with no obligation for implementation. I went on to mention that the plan was created with a 20-year horizon, and any implementation would be staged opportunistically over that timeline. I finished by pointing out that at any future time, the village may discover that what the plan recommends may no longer be appropriate, and, as with any plan, the village is free to make changes at any time to suit its needs.
Committee member Carol Lepak spoke to express extreme skepticism on the feasibility of the plan recommendations. She questioned whether the authors of the plan had realistic viewpoints, emphasizing with the comment, “Are you kidding me?” This comment was part of the expression of her opinion that plan recommendations were out of touch with reality. She continued with comments that reflected an attitude that everyone always used a motor vehicle for all of their transportation. She claimed to ride a bicycle herself, but her comments indicated she found it preposterous to think about putting bicycle lanes on Post Rd and County Hwy HH.
Chair Taugner moved to recommend adoption of the Portage County Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan for the Village of Whiting. Committee member Andrew Kruit seconded. A roll call vote was taken. Andrew Kruit, Mike Wallner, Cecil Coats, and Chair Bill Taugner all voted in favor of adopting the plan. Carol Lepak voted against. (No vote is recorded for President Stroik because he is not a member of PW&P.) With this 4-1 vote in favor of recommending adoption of the plan, the next step for the village is for the Village Board to take this recommendation under consideration and to vote on whether the county bike/ped plan should become an official planning document for the village.
I had a chance to speak with President Stroik after the meeting. He indicated that it was very likely that the village would soon hold a public hearing to gauge interest in a road diet for McDill, possibly at the May PW&P meeting. At that same meeting, PW&P could then decide whether or not to recommend a McDill road diet, and the Village Board could vote on that recommendation at its subsequent meeting in early June.
In my opinion, a road diet would certainly make it more comfortable to cross McDill at both School and at the Green Circle due to slowed traffic and fewer standard travel lanes to cross. I often use these crossings as part of my own local transportation by bicycle, so I am aware of the hazards that currently exist at these crossings.
I also feel that having bike lanes along the full length of McDill/HH between Post Rd and Hoover Ave would be an important component in our urban bicycle transportation network. McDill Pond is a major barrier for east-west transportation. To the north of the pond, Patch St/Industrial Park Dr provides both on street bike lanes and an off-street multi-use path for good bicycle connections between Church St (the extension of Post Rd to the north) and Hoover Ave.
Bike lanes along McDill/HH would provide good access between Post and Hoover immediately south of the pond. Furthermore, I have heard of plans to install bike lanes on Hwy HH east of Hoover as part of an upcoming bridge resurfacing project for Hwy HH over I-39, one component of a major state project to upgrade numerous I-39 bridges in the Stevens Point area. These bike lanes east of Hoover would provide good bicycle access to shopping in the Crossroads Commons area and for commuting to Portage County Business Park jobs.
Coupled with the existing north-south multi-use path along Hoover Ave, the coming bike lanes on Post Rd that are part of a 4-year reconstruction project that recently broke ground, and the anticipated bike lanes to be included in a future City of Stevens Point reconstruction of Church St, good bike access on McDill/HH between Post and Hoover would contribute to a robust bicycle transportation network for our urban area.
As I mentioned earlier, any decision by Whiting on a McDill road diet is not binding upon Portage County. As such, understanding the process at the Portage County level is key, including getting clarification on who the county decision makers are for a McDill road diet.
Yet any county deliberation is likely to be strongly influenced by the desires of Whiting residents, especially those who live along McDill. Because of this, going through the political process at the village level is a very important step in the overall process, even though it has no jurisdictional relevance. And adoption of the bike/ped plan by the village is a natural preliminary to the discussion of implementing a road diet on McDill that would slow traffic, thereby improving the crossings at School and the Green Circle.
The political process can sometimes be convoluted, and the issues I have discussed here provide an excellent example. I hope this post makes clear what the fundamentals are behind the adoption of the bike/ped plan by Whiting and the implementation of a road diet on McDill as part of the county’s resurfacing of Hwy HH.
As future meetings take place on these issues at the village or county level, and as other related information comes my way, I will continue to keep Poky Pedalers informed via the PPSP blog.
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