Sioux City considers transitioning to two-way streets
SIOUX CITY, Iowa (AP) — Through the windows at Jackson Street Brewing, owner Dave Winslow can watch the cars darting by on Fifth Street.
The three lanes of eastbound traffic keep vehicles moving at a steady clip, he said, often seeming well above the posted 25 mph speed limit.
“It seems like people when they drive by, especially on Fifth Street, they’re just roaring through,” he said. “It’s almost more like an interstate of a downtown area.”
Winslow said the speed of traffic gives drivers less time to notice his business, which is nestled at 607 Fifth St. between a nail salon and a religious gifts store. He said customers have also from time to time said they’ve had difficulty finding him while navigating the labyrinth of one-way streets in the city’s downtown.
Fifth, Sixth, Nebraska, Pierce and Douglas streets have been one-way in downtown Sioux City for decades. And, for many years, area business owners like Winslow have viewed a return to two-way traffic on some or all of those streets as economically beneficial.
Winslow said while he wouldn’t describe himself as an “overly squeaky wheel” about the switching, he supports the benefits.
“It’d be nice to see people coming to downtown more and slowing down and enjoying this good old farm city downtown,” he said.
Proponents of two-way streets say they reduce confusion, slow vehicles down to safer speeds and give passersby longer looks at storefronts. Several major metros including Dallas, Denver and Kansas City, as well as Des Moines and Cedar Rapids in Iowa, have either transitioned or currently are transitioning some downtown streets to two-way traffic.
“One-way streets are more difficult for people and visitors, when they’re coming into town, to try and figure out,” said Ragen Cote, the executive director of Downtown Partners, a vocal supporter of the transition. “There’s so much more we can do with parking and the way traffic flows.”
A majority of City Council members have shared a desire for what two-way streets could accomplish, especially on Fifth and Sixth streets where they want to spur more business development. But the council has so far refrained from moving forward, largely because of the cost, the Sioux City Journal reported .
City officials experienced sticker shock after a 2014 report by Lincoln, Nebraska-based Olsson Associates laid out plans for turning Fifth, Sixth and Douglas streets to two-way, with one lane in each direction and a center turning lane, to improve traffic circulation and business access. The price tag: an eye-popping $9.8 million.
Sioux City staff have since pared that estimate to $5.8 million by eliminating some of the extras that had driven up the original quote. But council members have said it’s still a heavy commitment in a tight budget year where other infrastructure projects are a priority.
“We have to weigh what other projects we have, as far as the priority of going to a two-way street system,” Councilman Dan Moore said.
During budget planning talks earlier this month, the council discussed starting with the full transition of Douglas Street, which is already two-way from Third Street to Fifth Street. The Public Works Department estimated that transition would cost approximately $650,000.
Already faced with a high-dollar capital projects plan, the council decided to keep the project on hold and not program it into the city’s five-year plan. But Moore, who also serves as one of two council representatives on the Downtown Partners Board of Directors, said he hopes the council will keep discussions alive on the proposal this year.
“I think it’s still under study, and we want to keep it out in front of us because there are benefits,” he said.
Councilman Alex Watters, the council’s other representative, agreed, saying he would like to learn more from businesses and professionals about the benefits.
“I want to hear from the hospital. I want to hear from downtown businesses. I want to see studies that would show that it would grow business downtown,” he said. “I’d like more information — what could we cut back and what changes could be made?”
Over the years, Mercy Medical Center — Sioux City has had on-and-off discussions with city leaders regarding the conversion of Fifth and Sixth streets to two-way.
For hospital staff, it’s not about losing business. It’s about safety.
“During an emergency, when every second counts, an already stressful situation can become even more stressful because the driver needs to remember he or she may need to go around the block or alter their route depending on where they are coming from,” Matt Robins, Mercy’s director of marketing and communications, said in an email.
City officials have revealed that Mercy is mulling plans for a significant renovation, and the hospital filed some preliminary site plans with the city in March of last year. Mercy has so far declined to comment on the project.
Asked whether one-way streets would hinder or discourage future development on the property, Robins responded: “Possibly.”
Another strong proponent of the transition is Roger Caudron, a development consultant who vigorously campaigned for the transition to two-way streets during his tenure as Downtown Partners’ previous executive director. Now, as he works with developer Lew Weinberg and Restoration St. Louis to restore the Warrior Hotel and Davidson Building on Sixth Street, Caudron continues to support the move.
“We’ve been talking about changing these streets back to two-way for 20 years now,” he said. “Why not start with one and get these done?”
Caudron said two-way streets would help foster business growth downtown as motorists have easier access to businesses, including the renovated Warrior/Davidson. When completed, that $56 million project will boast a 146-room Autograph by Marriott Hotel, luxury apartments and some of the only retail business in the vicinity.
To illustrate his point, Caudron laid out an example of a car exiting the Martin Luther King Jr. parking ramp across the street from the future hotel and, due to the one-way street, having to travel around the block to pick someone up at the door.
“With valet parking, that means the people are going to watch the car go around the parking garage and go around the block before they get it,” he said.
Caudron contrasted the sparse number of retail business on Fifth and Sixth streets with the blossoming Historic Fourth and Historic Pearl districts, which both sit on two-way streets, and said he believes two-way streets would increase the opportunity for vitality.
City public works director Dave Carney said changing the flow of traffic from one way to two is expensive because it requires more than just a fresh paint job or a few re-positioned traffic lights.
“It’s not like you can just flip the (traffic lights) around and they’ll work,” he told the City Council during a mid-January budget hearing. “It’s not that simple.”
Carney said the $5.8 million estimate to transition Fifth, Sixth and Douglas comes from the need to install new traffic signal poles, wiring and signal heads at 15 intersections, as well as a new thin overlay of pavement to cover up the old traffic lanes and painting costs for the new lines.
As much as half of the estimated $650,000 cost to convert Douglas Street was for traffic signal replacement.
Carney said he sees one-way streets as an efficient way to move traffic through the downtown area and added that some downsides could include more congestion on the roads and potential dangers from pedestrians who forget certain streets aren’t one-way.
At the same time, spending that much money on a two-way conversion could push other infrastructure repairs and replacements further back on the priority list.
The average age of Sioux City’s streets is more than 70 years old, and city officials have made it a point to keep the average age of its infrastructure from increasing. The cost of replacing streets inflates each year and will be valued at an estimated $9.8 million per mile in the upcoming budget year.
With that in mind, Watters described the city’s position as a “chicken or egg” situation, and Moore likened it to the two sides of a coin. In one sense, they said, a transition would make more sense once more business arrives downtown. On the other, the transition to two-way could be the catalyst for more downtown business growth.
Watters said the high number of large-scale downtown projects under construction makes it a good time to “strike while the iron’s hot,” but he believes the decision will ultimately be based on the city’s ability to pay for it.
Moore said he wants to see the council discuss where two-way streets fit on its list of its priorities as it continues to look into what’s involved.
“Right now it’s wait-and-see,” he said.
Information from: Sioux City Journal, http://www.siouxcityjournal.com