Several hundred Lincolnites showed up for a public meeting Wednesday night about a controversial three-lane roundabout scheduled for construction later this month at 14th and Superior streets.
And many of them were mad.
The meeting began at 6 p.m. but the city wasn’t scheduled to begin a presentation until 6:30 p.m. By 6:28 p.m., people were getting itchy and one man stood up and started loudly asking what time it was and why the presentation wasn’t beginning. People began clapping in unison – faster and faster as if to say, “Let’s get it started.”
The city gave out full-color, glossy fliers explaining the $11 million project and the merits of the three-lane roundabout that is its centerpiece, but opponents also stood by the door handing out their own black-and-white fliers outlining concerns. The city ran out of fliers at 200.
Miki Esposito – the city’s interim public works director – was baptized by fire as she had the unenviable task of trying to run the meeting. She opened by asking people to be patient and respectful. She said her son attends Kooser Elementary School and she uses the 14th and Superior intersection to get to work.
Thomas Shafer, head of design and construction for the city public works department, told the audience he lives in North Hills and drives through the intersection about 20 times a week – and then a man started yelling at him. Shafer said the roundabout is the safest, most cost-effective option and will be able to handle more traffic than a signaled intersection. He said the intersection has had 90 accidents in three years, and cited a 2000 report that said crashes dropped 39 percent after traditional intersections were converted to roundabouts. Injury accidents dropped 76 percent and fatal or incapacitating accidents dropped nearly 90 percent, according to the report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit funded by auto insurers and associations.
But when Shafer began citing those stats, a man yelled, “That’s not true!”
When Shafer pointed to a computer simulation of what the roundabout should look like in 2025, some people hooted and howled.
“That is never gonna happen like that!” one yelled.
At that point, some people started leaving. Many people were frustrated because even though city officials say they’ve held 20 meetings on the topic, many felt city officials did not listen to them.
When City Engineer Roger Figard said the roundabout went through “a lot of process,” someone yelled “Who discussed it?”
At one point, someone asked people who supported the roundabout to raise their hands, and about a dozen did so.
The meeting seemed on the verge of spiraling out of control when Shafer wisely invited former Police Chief/current Public Safety Director Tom Casady to come up and give his opinion. In a quiet, soothing voice, Casady calmed the crowd somewhat — speaking like a teacher in control of a classroom, he said, “I’ve spent most of my adult life being yelled at by people. If you wanna hear what I have to say… before the yelling starts. If you don’t, I’ll go home and cook.”
Casady said he was skeptical before the city built the roundabout at 33rd and Sheridan Boulevard and wondered whether the city was ready for it.
“I’ve seen a lot of people in Lincoln looking at a detour sign like cattle looking at a new gate,” he said.
In the eight years before the Sheridan roundabout was installed, there were 104 crashes, 27 with injuries. In the eight years since, Casady said there have been 21 crashes, two with injuries.
However, a person yelled that the Sheridan roundabout has “One lane not three!”
As for the underpass that some people fear will be unsafe for middle school kids, Casady said it’s better than having students bolt across the street. When someone began yelling, Casady said, “Do you mind, sir?” The man kept yelling, so Casady asked the crowd, “How about everybody else?” and many applauded in agreement that the man should zip it.
After the city finished its presentation, city officials tried to steer people toward the back of the room to privately ask questions at several booths set up with renderings of the project, but they were basically buffaloed into allowing people to come up to the front of the room and ask questions via microphone.
For the rest of the meeting, people came up and asked questions, complained and occasionally offered support.
One of the leading opponents, Carol Brown, questioned why the city shelved the other option: a traditional intersection with dual left turns, two through lanes and a right turn lane.
“This is not gonna work there,” she said of the roundabout.
Figard said the city used world-renowned consultants who have done roundabouts all over the nation, and tested the new double roundabout by Memorial Stadium with semis, fire trucks and city buses — all of which were able to navigated them. But he knows roundabouts are controversial: He said typically 60 to 80 percent of people oppose them.
“Roundabouts are coming,” he said. “They’re now in the driver’s manual.”
Construction is set to begin Oct. 24 and the roundabout is scheduled to open in November 2012. The whole project — which is being paid for with all local money — is scheduled to be done in May 2013.
This is the first time I’ve seen the city allow a true public meeting to be held on a city project. The city normally sets up booths with pictures of the project and allows people to ask questions of the people manning the booths. No public presentation, no Question & Answer period, no opportunity for things to spiral out of control like they nearly did tonight. However, I applaud the city for making an exception. It was democracy in action, even though it probably makes city officials nervous and certainly the mayor will not like seeing the TV news and headlines about the rancor.
Unfortunately for opponents, I don’t think they can stop this train. After the meeting, as people were trickling out, I asked the public works director whether there was any chance the city would reconsider the roundabout.
“The project is going forward,” Esposito said, moments after a woman predicted a child would be killed in the roundabout some day, and told her she’d have blood on her hands when it happened.