The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

January 7, 2013

Joplin City Council nixes 15th Street viaduct

By Debby Woodin

JOPLIN, Mo. — A majority of the Joplin City Council decided Monday night to side with 15th Street business owners and nix a viaduct project even though a federal highway official said it could cost the city a $12 million grant for street work.

After the 5-4 vote by the council to accept the grant except for the 15th Street viaduct, Edward D. “Bud” Smith, owner of the Mid-Town Shopping Center in the 800 block of East 15th Street, stepped up and thanked the council.

“I’m so happy,” he said. “I’m terribly pleased the council voted with small-business owners. We’re thankful small businesses were able to prevail.”

He has owned business property on 15th Street for more than 50 years and said a viaduct would bury his shopping strip, where tenants rely partly on passing motorists and easy access to supply a stream of customers.

Joplin was awarded a $12 million federal highway grant that was sought for widening Schifferdecker Avenue and West 26th Street, and for constructing viaducts over railroad crossings on 20th and 15th streets. The merchants had called on the council to nix the 15th Street project, saying they would lose their businesses or sustain serious loss by being located next to a bridge that would be about 30 feet tall at its apex.

The council had asked the city staff to find out from federal officials if deleting a project would affect the remainder of the grant and had received word that an official would be sent to answer questions at the council’s meeting. The ordinance was up for final reading Monday night, and the council chamber was packed largely with people against the 15th Street proposal.

Kevin Ward, the Missouri division administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, told the council that he was not an advocate or opponent of any project, but he wanted to “express a concern about the TIGER grant action” to take off one of the projects the city had listed in its application for funding. “We could lose funding for the entire project if that were to happen,” he said. The federal program is called Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery.

Councilman Bill Scearce told Ward that he had read the application, and “nowhere does it say the funding could be in danger” if one project were to be pulled out.

Ward said there were 850 applications, and the agency selected only 24 for funding. He said he doesn’t know for sure what the secretary of transportation would do, but the department prefers to receive acceptance by June 1 and have the projects committed by the end of the fiscal year. The city would have five years to finish the project, and public hearings would be held at a later stage to determine the project’s effect on surrounding properties. The city had only a preliminary design and had not reached the stage of talking about buying right of way and reimbursing losses, the city staff said.

Councilman Morris Glaze asked Ward if the project’s intent to separate the street from a railroad grade crossing was a factor in awarding the grant. Ward said it was.

Smith, when he addressed the council, predicted that the viaduct would cost $5 million in property values and $4 million in payroll affecting 150 employees in the area if a bridge were built cutting off street-side access, whether the city built it now or later. “The project is ill-conceived” because of the number businesses it would affect and the traffic disruptions it would create along intersecting Illinois and Indiana avenues, he said.

Allyn Burt, who owns a property at 20th Street and Indiana Avenue, spoke against both the 15th and 20th street viaducts. He said he looked at the preliminary plans for their designs and was “completely appalled” that the structures would be bridges rather than train overpasses like the one the city built over Connecticut Avenue.

Curtis Owens, who owns The Store, 1210 E. 15th St., said his business has been there 20 years but would shut down shortly after construction of a viaduct started. “I rely 100 percent on walk-in business,” he said. “I’ve heard many time frames on the construction, from 18 months down to nine months. It doesn’t matter. I couldn’t last 30 days” with traffic rerouted off 15th Street even temporarily.

Twila Housh of Big R’s restaurant, 1220 E. 15th St., said she has 35 employees who rely on her business for their livelihoods. She said if customers cannot get to her restaurant easily because of a detour or a viaduct, they will go someplace else.

Vicki Branch of Yates Trackside Furniture told the council that the company’s furniture trucks could not maneuver there if a viaduct were built. “It would bury us completely,” she said of the bridge.

The plan was not without supporters, though. One resident spoke in favor of building the viaduct, and several council members did so as well.

Councilman Gary Shaw said that as the project underwent further design and planning, the city might make changes rather than jeopardizing the grant.

Councilman Mike Seibert, who voted in favor of excluding the project at the previous meeting, said he was changing his vote rather than risk the entire $12 million grant.

Councilman Benjamin Rosenberg, who made a motion to give final approval to the grant acceptance without the 15th Street viaduct, said that if the federal government is benevolent, it will allow the funding for the 20th Street viaduct.

“I don’t think the money is that important to injure that number of businesses,” Rosenberg said.

Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean said that even though she advocated for the grant with federal officials, she voted to turn down the 15th Street project in order to protect some of Joplin’s small businesses.

How they voted

THE CITY COUNCIL VOTED 5-4 to accept the $12 million grant without the 15th Street viaduct. Those in favor were Benjamin Rosenberg, Bill Scearce, Jack Golden, Trisha Raney and Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean. Those against nixing the viaduct were Morris Glaze, Mike Woolston, Mike Seibert and Gary Shaw.