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Citizens, firefighters disapprove of upcoming intersection change

 

Josh Reeder, standing, addresses the Electric City Council last week on a streets and sidewalks plan. - Jacob Wagner photo

Citizens, firefighters, engineers, and city officials discussed a controversial possible intersection change in Electric City at the city's April 9 council meeting.

About 18 people in the crowd watched or participated in the discussion surrounding the city's plans to remove the stretch of Western Avenue directly in front of city hall and replace it with a sidewalk.

Most only found out about the plans through recent articles in The Star, although the project is ready to go out to bid, with construction starting sometime this summer.

That sidewalk project is part of a larger project to build a sidewalk along a stretch of SR-155, as well as Grand Avenue, which combined will cost about $304,000, paid for with a grant from Washington state's Transportation Improvement Board and a 5-percent, $16,000 match from the city.

Much of the controversy around the change comes from the stops and turns that would be added to the route of a fire truck leaving the nearby fire station, as well as for firefighters heading there to answer a call.

"How it affects the fire department, I don't think was ever looked into," Electric City resident Keith Faul said. "If you look at how that fire department was laid out, it comes right up Western. Also as a citizen, when was this ever discussed? Was this something the council just decided?"

Another resident, Karen Depew, read a letter from her neighbors, Raymond and Marian Spackman. "The two extra 90-degree angles add response time to fire trucks and ambulances, as well as wear and tear on trucks, with added stops pauses and starts," the letter reads. The letter also cited traffic being redirected up "narrow" Stevens Avenue as a concern with the possible change. "We totally disagree with the proposed changes," the letter says. "The money would be better used to replace or repair our many damaged roads."

Depew agreed with the Spackmans' letter. "I like the design," Depew said. "Sidewalks and curbs would help the area for sure; but to stop Western, I disagree with that."

Josh Reeder, a Grand Coulee resident and senior officer for the Electric City Fire Department, spoke next.

I just want to stress, specifically, public safety and environmental stuff," Reeder started. "I, myself, as an officer being responsible to life safety of citizens, it does present several more challenges to us, which aren't good."

Reeder also questioned whether environmental studies or public safety studies had been done on rerouting traffic. "I'm personally not an engineer, but a lot of these roads are not adequate, in my opinion, to absorb traffic that goes up and down (Western)."

Reeder said the fire trucks can weigh 75,000 pounds, and that stopping and starting again would be a nuisance. Referring to saving a house in Elmer City last year, "I don't think we had 30 seconds," he said.

"When I hit my lights and sirens, I can make it out to the highway and get to my emergency and save lives and properties without having to stop," Reeder said about the way things are now.

"I have a lot of thoughts and questions regarding your plans to close a portion of Western and build what you're calling a city center," resident Catrien Slater said. "My main question is why? ... It was said it's there to slow down traffic, but really you are just redirecting traffic towards Stevens and Electric Boulevard, which are narrower and more residential. So I'm sure those residents will be pleased at the increased traffic."

Slater said she was in favor of sidewalks and a city facelift, "but this road closure just baffles me. We need to improve our roads, not take them away. I'm sure the money used for this city center could be better spent on other areas of the city."

Slater also questioned whether there had been public input on the matter planned much earlier. "Since it was many years ago, should it have been brought up again with the city residents before starting the bidding process with contractors?" she asked.

Michael Meskimen, a civil engineer with Gray & Osborne, the city's engineering firm, said the city has not yet asked for bids on the project. "There is still the opportunity to make changes or revisions to this," he said.

Meskimen said the idea had existed before his firm began working with the city and was originally conceived by the city's previous engineering firm.

"This whole area is kind of a confusing area from a traffic-engineering standpoint," Meskimen said. "You don't have a lot of control here."

Meskimen cited a triangular area where people park, a bus stop, sight problems, awkward angles, and misaligned intersections with more than four legs on them complicating the current intersection. He said eliminating one of the legs of the intersection is one solution to simplifying the traffic of the area.

Resident Gary Haven said that he has lived in the area of the intersection for 10 years but hasn't seen any accidents or issues.

City Clerk Russ Powers said that one of the biggest concerns at the intersection is "pedestrian traffic and sight restrictions."

"When we do these grants, we bring the designs to the council for approval prior to going to the next phases," Powers said. "So there's another opportunity for the public to weigh in if there's a problem with any of the designs that we put forth in the grants."

"I want to explain to everyone we have a park going in behind the fire station," Powers said later. "There's going to be children there, especially in the summertime. One of the things we were studying is to make sure those kids have safe crossing to get to their destinations. Right now kids get off the bus at city hall and go in all directions. You don't know what direction they'll go. When we did this, we wanted to make sure there'd be stop signs so kids can cross the road."

"Every roadway design you do," Meskimen said, "ultimately has some pluses and negatives. How you choose to balance those out is ultimately a decision you guys have to make."

Electric City Fire Chief Mark Payne said he has been with the department since 1996, and presented a letter, signed by five local fire chiefs, regarding the impact the intersection change could have on response time and safety.

Payne cited a number of grievances with the city, many included in a recent Star article, including not being consulted by the city throughout this process, the complications of the stops and turns, the complications for using a fire hydrant in the area if the plan were carried through, and especially the increase in response time.

"I honestly believe this idea creates a hazard for our department and people when we're responding," Payne said, "and so if it's not too late, I'm not for it, unless they can come up with something they can sell me on. I'll go to every freaking meeting you guys have, but as long as it's slowing our men down to get there, and putting us in an unsafe thing, I'm going to fight it 'til the end."

Mayor John Nordine joked that Payne was named "Payne" for a reason, to which Payne agreed. Powers apologized to Payne for not including him on the process.

Sgt. Gary Moore, of the Grand Coulee Police department, cited "blind hills" in the area of Stevens, where traffic would be directed, as another concern in the plan.

Mayor Nordine said they were moving on to the next topic on the agenda, and the bulk of the crowd left, but the council discussed it a bit more, mentioning that widening Stevens Avenue could be a possibility.

Councilmember Aaron Derr said the council should address citizens' concerns, or they "would be just ready to tar and feather us."

Powers later told The Star that they still plan to go through with the plan.

"As of right now, the process is moving forward as is," he said. "We're working on a few tweaks on a revision just to make sure that we account for the fire department as much as possible."

He said the city still plans to go out to bid on the project soon.

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