Carter Street Project faces backlash, goes back to engineer

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By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

In what was once thought a foregone conclusion, Elkader’s Carter Street Project is facing growing public backlash and has gone back to the engineer. It’s no longer just about the loss of some trees, but instead centered on the actual widening of the street itself and the inequity of where that widening will come from. 

As it currently stands, the north side of the street is slated to incur all the widening, a fact that residents of the street, according to council member Bob Hendrickson, are not happy about. In speaking with residents, Out of the eight people he spoke with, Hendrickson found only two were in favor of widening the street. 

“It’s easy to say a street should be so wide if it doesn’t come off of your side. It’s a little harder when the majority is coming off of your side,” Hendrickson said.

The recent state of things has some questioning why these concerns were not expressed before, especially considering the original vote that approved the project was taken back in June 2018, giving residents a full two years to make their complaints known. There have also been several council meetings since to have the issue addressed, so “why did they wait until July [of this year] to start expressing their concerns?” asked city administrator Jennifer Cowsert. 

The road, currently only 24.9 feet wide, needs to be widened to at least 26 feet, the required minimum. What justifies the leap from 26 to 31 feet? As Cowsert put it, “The function of that street, being an ambulance route, she [the engineer] went with 31 feet.” 

While it is possible to do the water, sewer, storm sewer and paving aspects without going the full 31 feet, there is more to be considered: parking, the location of the hospital, the disruption to traffic flow and the knowledge that Carter Street is not just a neighborhood street, but acts as a “residential collector street,” Cowsert said. These are considerations she believes the council needs to take into account for the overall good of the community. 

However, some residents, and even Hendrickson, questioned the hospital access as a justification. Hendrickson, a former ambulance driver, argued, “I never had to pull over with the ambulance and wait for somebody to go by…so the justification to need to go an entire six to seven feet, I don’t really understand it.” 

One resident, speaking out against the widening, said, “I don’t think, in the 50 years that the hospital has been there, that there’s anybody’s name that didn’t get care or died because they couldn’t get to the hospital.” 

The same resident continued, “I don’t think it has to be 31 feet…it might be suggested…I’d call her bluff on that and say it’s not necessary.” 

This back and forth led Hendrickson to state, “Speaking for the residents on that street, I kind of wonder if we can work to a compromise.”

There is no law that requires the 31 feet, but there are industry standards. According to Mayor Josh Pope, such “standards exist to provide a safe design for our residents.” Pope also mentioned the city council had previously voted to “follow the engineering standards that were adopted,” and followed that up by saying “our engineers would not design it if there were safety concerns.” 

Some residents aren’t inclined to follow the standards, which they labeled as “guidelines.” It’s a point Pope stressed is not the case, reiterating that “these are standards, not guidelines…and as standards we should follow them…and to improve the overall usability of Carter Street, we need to widen it to industry standards.” 

Whether you call them standards or guidelines, who and how is it decided, which ones to follow and which ones to disregard? It was a question posed by Cowsert at the most recent meeting. She also pointed out that money has already been spent over the last two years in arriving at the current project, which was presented and made available to the public on numerous occasions. 

Regarding public input into the 31 feet, Pope explained, “The Council who made this decision before was taking the overall community into consideration.” He also noted that prior visioning groups recognized Carter Street as a “high priority.” 

What explains the current backlash when this was never brought up as an issue previously? “I really have no idea. I wish I knew,” Cowsert said. “It is the same two to three residents that we continue to hear from.” 

Similarly, Pope answered, “I am not sure what changed, but would welcome the residents to come and explain it to me.” 

The new complaints have prompted current council member Daryl Koehn, who previously voted for the project in June 2018, to waver. When it was mentioned that he voted to approve the 31 feet, he said, “I understand that, but in light of this information from the residents, that changes things.” 

Koehn also commented on the growing concerns and contentiousness of the debate. The idea behind council decisions is to “spend money to make it [the community] better, not people bitter.” 

In continuing to support the current proposal, Pope said, “I want to move this community forward to grow, and to do that, we need to improve and update our infrastructure.” 

Cowsert shared a similar sentiment. “When you are part of a community, you are supposed to be open to doing things that are good for the community.” 

However, Hendrickson concluded, “I see no reason why we couldn’t improve the street without having to widen it to 31 feet when the majority of people that live on that street are against it.” 

The ongoing Carter Street discussion will continue at the next council meeting on Aug. 10. Engineer Nichole Sungren will be present to respond to the newest bout of concerns.

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