Traffic Safety Commissioner Jim Woods knows better than most how emotional residents can get when it comes to motorists speeding through their neighborhoods.
The city advisory board he serves on is the front line for battles about everything from traffic circles, speed humps and other devices meant to “calm” traffic and reduce the likelihood that pedestrian versus vehicle accidents will occur.
Usually the arguments involve some common elements: children, pedestrians, oftentimes a school and always lead-footed drivers.
“Neighborhoods are always wanting things to slow down traffic,” Woods said.
And oftentimes they get it. Well, they get it approved anyway. The Traffic Safety Commission — and ultimately the Lawrence City Commission — have approved 18 traffic calming projects since early 2004.
But as neighbors are learning, getting a project approved and getting it built are two different things.
“A lot of times,” Woods said, “we’ll tell them that we’ll approve what they want, but then we will tell them we don’t know when it will get done. It might be a year, or it might be five years. Then their faces get kind of long.”
Five years have come and gone for several of the projects. The city’s top-ranked traffic calming project, a plan for five traffic-calming circles for the University Place neighborhood north and west of 19th and Louisiana streets, was approved in June 2004 after neighbors fought hard for the project. It remains uncompleted.
In fact, of the top-five ranked projects — the city scores them based on speeds, crashes and other factors — four of them have been on the list for five or more years. Two of them, the University Place project and one on East 13th Street, have had some work done, but none of them has been completed.
Mayor Aron Cromwell said there is a pretty simple reason: If forced to choose, the majority of residents would rather have their streets smoother than slower. That’s not to say that the city still doesn’t hear from neighbors urging more traffic calming devices. But they hear from a lot of resident urging fewer potholes.
“We haven’t decided to make those traffic calming projects a priority yet,” Cromwell said. “One of the big reasons is because we have been playing catch-up for the last couple of years on just routine street maintenance. In past years, we didn’t do some of that maintenance when we needed to, and now we feel like we have to play catch-up.
“We need to put every dime we can into that effort.”
But here’s something as surprising as motorists obeying a yellow light in Lawrence: Neighbors seem to be understanding.
“I really haven’t heard any complaints at all about it,” said Gwen Klingenberg, president of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods, and also a resident of a neighborhood that has an uncompleted traffic calming project. “The city is trying. They are doing it slowly, but we understand that.”
The city is doing some work on the projects. Of the 18 projects on the list, two are expected to be completed by the end of the summer. In North Lawrence, work to add speed humps on North Ninth Street between Walnut and Locust streets was done while crews were doing microsurfacing to the area. Speed humps on Carmel Drive near 18th Street in west Lawrence also will be done as the road receives a new microsurface.
David Woosley, the city’s traffic engineer, said that’s the city current plan of attack to address the backlog of projects. When the city has a construction crew already in the area for a major maintenance project, it will try to complete the traffic calming project as well.
“But if traffic calming is the only work that would be under way in the area, that is what we have a real hard time funding right now,” Woosley said.
Funding it all
The city doesn’t have an official cost estimate for completing all of the projects on the list. But Woosley said most traffic calming projects are tens of thousands of dollars, not hundreds of thousands.
“If we had $30,000 to $50,000 a year for a few years, we could come up with a plan to get through the list,” Woosley said.
Another way to get a traffic calming project done is to pay for it yourself. Kansas University recently won approval for several new traffic calming devices near campus by agreeing to provide the $60,000 in funding. The project expected to be completed before KU’s fall semester begins will build two speed cushions near West Campus and Stratford roads and two more near 11th Street and West Campus Road.
So far, neighborhoods haven’t started to band together to offer the city funding for their projects. Woods doesn’t expect that to happen, and he also said he can understand how it has been difficult for the city to provide funding for the projects too. But he said the Traffic Safety Commission still gets requests for traffic calming projects, and it can be a little frustrating to deal with them.
“I’ll be listening to parents talk about a project that is needed by a school, and I know that a lot of them won’t see this project built until their kids are out school,” Woods said.
City commissioners are set to complete their 2012 budget deliberations in 2012. So far, there has been no serious discussion of providing funding for the backlog of traffic calming projects.