The weeks-long organized lobbying effort by a group of families who live near St. Ann Catholic School and SM East to get the city of Prairie Village to take quick action to improve pedestrian safety along Mission Road between 71st Street and 75th Street bore fruit Monday.
By a 6-5 vote, the city council approved a plan to make the renovation of that stretch of road the city’s targeted County Assistance Road System (CARS) project for 2016, meaning half of the project costs will be eligible for reimbursement from Johnson County. The city’s public works department had initially slated the renovation of Mission from 75th Street to 83rd Street as the CARS project for 2016 and targeted 2017 to make the improvements to the stretch that runs from the Village Shops to SM East.
But persistent pressure from a group of homeowners in the area led by 74th Street residents Katie Siengsukon and Mike Riley, who became concerned for the safety of pedestrians on the road after a near-miss accident in February where a car hopped the curb onto the sidewalk directly abutting Mission Road just before St. Ann let out school, swayed enough members of the council to vote to move the project up a year, bucking the recommendations of city staff and Mayor Laura Wassmer.
At the beginning of Monday’s proceedings, Public Works Director Keith Bredehoeft told the council he was supportive of the 71st to 75th Street project and believed it could be a valuable improvement to pedestrians and cyclists. However, he said, to be properly executed, a project of such scope requires months of planning and public involvement. He also noted that it was not a typical CARS project, in that it will require significant reconfiguration of the street. (Most CARS projects are simple mill-and-overlay repairs to existing infrastructure).
Bredehoeft said that while it was possible to get the project done in 2016, he worried that moving it up a year would force his team to rush the process and may not give them time to take every factor — like how best to accommodate bicycles on the road — into consideration.
But Siengsukon and more than a dozen supporters who filled the council chamber galley, many with children in tow, argued that the city had allowed the unsafe conditions for pedestrians along Mission for too long and that it was imperative to make the improvements as quickly as possible.
“This is a safety concern that is real, it’s urgent, and we experience it every day,” Siengsukon told the council. “This is a ‘have-to do’ situation.”
Lynn Thornburg, the woman in whose yard the Jaguar in the February accident ended up, burst into tears as she approached the microphone during public comment, telling the council the thought of someone having gotten injured in the accident distressed her.
“Everyone takes great pride in their house and yard [in our neighborhood]. I want my daughter to be out in the yard — but the way things are right now, we can’t do that,” she said.
No one on the council suggested that the safety concerns of the residents were invalid or that the project shouldn’t be undertaken. But several noted that rushing to move the project to 2016 opened the possibility that it wouldn’t be carried out to its full potential.
“I believe in this project 100 percent. My problem is rushing it,” said Ruth Hopkins, the council’s most tenured member, who noted that she sent her three children to St. Ann Catholic school. “What we’ve been told is that it’s an 18-month project to do it well and do it right…I really think you could end up with something that’s not the best.”
Councilor Steve Noll echoed her concerns.
“These are changes that are needed and they’re overdue,” he said. “But we don’t have enough time to get this done — to study, vet it and analyze — if we move it up a year. You can’t just hire a temp and say ‘do it.’ That just is not the way we should be doing it.”
But other councilors cited the concerted effort of the residents to effect a positive change as the key driver in their decision.
“Rarely, if ever in my time on the council have I seen so many people come together to support a positive change in their neighborhood,” said councilor Andrew Wang. “They weren’t coming together to fight against something. They wanted something positive.”
Eric Mikkelson, perhaps the effort’s strongest proponent on the council, said time and again that of all the competing interests surrounding the decision, the “safety of our children and residents should be the top consideration.”
Mikkelson, Wang, Jori Nelson, Dan Runion, David Morrison and Terrence Gallagher voted in favor of making the 71st to 75th Street project the priority for 2016. Hopkins, Noll, Ashley Weaver, Sheila Myers and Brooke Morehead voted against it. Councilor Ted Odell was absent.
Current estimates for the project are approximately $1,000,000, of which $500,000 should be eligible for CARS reimbursement. The 75th Street to 83rd Street project that had been planned for 2016 and is now slated for 2017 was budgeted at an estimated $1,776,000, half of which would have been eligible for CARS reimbursement.
Bredehoeft told the council that construction on the project likely would not begin until after school has let out for summer in 2016 in an effort to lessen inconvenience.