By Debby Woodin
A second reading of an ordinance to accept a $12 million federal grant for some Joplin street projects, including a viaduct for 15th Street, has some business owners looking at their options for stopping the viaduct project should the City Council restore it to the list.
The council on Dec. 17 was asked to approve a measure to accept the grant from the Federal Highway Administration to fund the widening of Schifferdecker Avenue and a portion of 26th Street. The money also would pay for construction of a viaduct on 20th Street to keep traffic moving over a railroad line near Wisconsin Avenue and would pay some initial costs toward planning for a viaduct over the railroad line on 15th Street. The city had named all four projects in an application last year for the grant funding.
But the presence of a number of business owners who spoke against the 15th Street proposal caused the council to vote 6-3 against advancing the 15th Street viaduct. The other projects were left intact.
Members of the council also instructed City Manager Mark Rohr to find out whether the federal agency would allow the city to have the grant for the other work if the 15th Street project was deleted.
On Monday, the council plans to conduct the second and third reading of that ordinance, which includes deletion of the 15th Street viaduct. It is scheduled to be heard during a public hearing, requested by Councilman Benjamin Rosenberg, so that anyone may make a comment on the project or ask questions.
Mayor Melodee Colbert-Kean, when asked if the city had received word on how the action could affect the grant, said a representative of the Federal Highway Administration will speak at the session.
“A representative of the Missouri division is coming down Monday, and he is going to address the implications of pulling that out or delaying the project,” she said. “He’s been in talks with the federal division.”
She said the business owners who have spoken against the project, as well as any other interested residents, may make comments or ask questions during the public hearing.
“The last thing we want to do is hurt those businesses,” the mayor said. “But we know change causes some growing pains.”
Public Works Director David Hertzberg said the opposition is premature. He said a formal public hearing would have taken place in future stages of the project’s planning. That would involve consulting the property owners and making changes to the design to address their concerns.
When asked where discussions stand with the federal agency, he said, “Obviously, the Federal Highway Administration has enough interest to come down and speak, so there is some concerns.”
Doug Helox, a spokesman for the highway agency in Washington, D.C., was asked whether the grant would be affected if a project is deleted and if the agency has a policy on how it addresses such situations. He said that since the city’s decision is not yet final, he would not offer a speculative comment.
Some business owners in the area of the proposed viaduct are not waiting for Monday’s meeting to look at their options. They are meeting today to discuss how they might respond should the council vote to proceed with the 15th Street project.
“My position is still the same as it was before,” said Edward D. “Bud” Smith, owner of the Mid-Town Shopping Center in the 800 block of East 15th Street. “Those businesses on 15th Street are going to be buried. That bridge is going to be so high that not only is it going to bury the ones on 15th Street, but it’s going to stop traffic going north and south on Indiana and Illinois avenues.”
Smith said he believes that the 20th Street viaduct will give motorists a route to get through if they do not wish to wait on trains to cross at 15th Street. He said the city staff does not seem to acknowledge how much traffic the Illinois and Indiana corridor handles and how much visibility the streets, especially 15th Street, give to businesses there.
“My basic concern is the impact it will have on sales and visibility of our company,” said Troy Richards, a part owner of Joplin Building Materials at 15th Street and Illinois Avenue. The company is a brick and building materials supplier that relies on its location to be accessible to retail customers and to trucks delivering materials and products.
Richards said the city should have determined how the project would affect those in the area before it applied for grant money to fund the work or spent money on a preliminary design.
“I’m not opposed to a viaduct if they can prove to me it’s a safety issue” for motorists, he said.
Property owners also say they are unclear on whether they would be compensated for lost business or relocation.
“This is a federal process, and there would be appraisals done, and compensation for right-of-way or relocation costs would be paid for,” Hertzberg said. “Any proximity damage caused by the project would be part of that process.”
He said the city had not gotten to that stage before the dissension surfaced.
“You want to have enough information that you know in general what the options are,” Hertzberg said. “We want the input from the property owners to see what works best for the property owners and the driving community to address both sides of the issue.”
Smith said his reaction would be the same now or later.
“The city needs to look at it harder and see if there’s another way to do that,” he said. “The problem is no matter whether you get federal money or state money, wherever the money comes from, it’s still going to bury our businesses.”
THE 15TH STREET VIADUCT was first proposed as a two-lane bridge, but City Manager Mark Rohr said on Dec. 17 that the viaduct would be widened to four lanes. That would cost an additional $2.1 million. Rohr said the city would have to find more funding to pay for that. The city already was short about $1.5 million and was asking Kansas City Southern Railway Co. to help cover that funding gap.