Last Wednesday, a divided Bloomington city council approved new stop signs on Maxwell Lane at Sheridan Drive, making the intersection an all-way stop.
The council’s deliberations were on brand—mired in meaningless debate club theater. The desire to score debate points distracted from a fundamental challenge—the need to identify more funding for infrastructure that benefits pedestrians.
But there’s an upcoming venue where a need for additional funding pedestrian infrastructure could get aired. Sometime in the next few weeks, the four-member city council sidewalk committee will be conducting its annual review of requests for new sidewalk construction.
The committee will be making recommendations on how to divvy up $336,000, which is the same amount as last year. But based on 2019 costs, there’s $17 million worth of requests on list for additional sidewalks, which will take a half century to build at the current pace.
I hope the sidewalk committee members take some of their meeting time to start talking about concrete steps the council could take, working with the mayor, to inject more money into pedestrian infrastructure.
Here’s some ideas that could be explored: annually issue $3 million in general obligation bonds targeted for pedestrian infrastructure; tap a portion of the $16 million in CRED (Community Revitalization Enhancement District) fund balances; or use tax increment finance (TIF) revenue, which is overseen by the redevelopment commission.
The vote on the Maxwell-Sheridan stop signs was 6–2 with Steve Volan abstaining—because he could not bring himself to vote for it or against it. Matt Flaherty and Kate Rosenbarger voted against the stop signs, citing the recommendation of city engineer Andrew Cibor, which was based on the MUTCD (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices) standards.
Cibor offered his perspective on more than just the technical attributes of the intersection. He indicated that the intersection could benefit from a narrowing of the roadway, but cautioned, “It starts to get to the question of prioritization of larger capital investments.”
He added, “The trick is we have so many other locations in the city that also have challenging locations for pedestrians to cross or lack of pedestrian facilities at all…”
The council could have taken Cibor’s statement on Wednesday as a cue to come together in their deliberations to talk about identifying more sources of funding for capital investments in pedestrian infrastructure.
Instead of coming together, the council took the chance to find creative ways to divide itself even more.
Here’s one example. Volan decided to try for a cheap debating point by accusing Dave Rollo—his colleague on the council of nearly 19 years, and stop sign ordinance co-sponsor—of failing to provide the required fiscal impact statement that is required under Bloomington’s city code.
Volan’s question to Rollo was: “Is there a fiscal impact statement for this ordinance,…which has definitely revolved around the cost of implementation?”
Rollo said there was not a “formal fiscal impact statement,” but indicated that Cibor had estimated the cost of adding the stop controls for the intersection at $1,000.
Volan’s response: “I’ll just note that the answer is there is no fiscal impact statement. …you didn’t bother to do it.”
In fact, Cibor’s cost estimate was included in the council staff memo on the topic, and the memo was included in the meeting information packet:
Engineering staff provided a rough cost estimate of $1,000 for the installation of all-way stop controls. Staff also noted that a cost estimate for traffic calming devices is difficult to provide without knowing the type or design of traffic calming that might be installed.
Does that count as a fiscal impact statement? Yes.
The reason it counts is that in February 2021 the council gutted the local law requiring a fiscal impact statement for all legislation—by removing the requirement that a standard form be used for the statement.
The council’s action in early 2021 came after The B Square pointed out in late summer of 2020 that the council had not been following the law on fiscal impact statements, which at the time required a form to be filled out.
In February 2021, councilmember Sue Sgambelluri said this about the change to abolish the required fiscal impact statement form: “It provides flexibility and it would no longer force us to kind of shoehorn those reports into a form that is not particularly flexible.”
As a result of the change, Bloomington’s local law on fiscal impact statements no longer mentions a form. The law now reads: “All proposed legislation must be accompanied by a statement describing the impact of that legislation on the city’s finances, including but not limited to revenues, expenditures, and any new debt obligations.”
After the requirement to use a standard form was abolished, a description in a council staff memo based on a cost estimate from city staff was enough to satisfy the amended law.
Such a description was enough for the council to give unanimous approval to an ordinance in April 2021 that abolished right turns on red at several intersections. For the no-right-turn-on-red ordinance, here’s what the fiscal impact statement in the council staff memo looked like:
[Public works director Adam Wason] provided a rough estimate of approximately $50 per sign, along with $50 for installation. At a total estimated cost of roughly $100 per installed sign, the total cost associated with new signage would be in the range of $8,000.
If the council’s collective memory extended just to the relatively recent events of February 2021, when the required form for a fiscal impact statement was eliminated, the council could have spared itself at least one distraction during Wednesday’s meeting.
If the council’s collective memory extended as far back as 2008, the deliberations on Wednesday could have been better informed—by a council decision that year to install new stop signs at the intersection of Henderson and Allen streets.
The 2008 edition of the council included four current councilmembers: Dave Rollo, Isabel Piedmont-Smith, Steve Volan, and Susan Sandberg. The council was considering a broader ordinance on changes to the traffic code, and it was Piedmont-Smith who sponsored an amendment, which added the Henderson-Allen stop signs.
Like the Maxwell-Sheridan signs, Henderson-Allen stop signs did not enjoy the city engineer’s recommendation, because they did not meet the MUTCD warrants. But according to Herald-Times coverage, “It was reported that the stop sign was recommended by the city’s traffic commission in order to slow traffic on Henderson which, on average, was found to be going almost twice the legal limit.”
The H-T editorialized against an infrastructure improvement at the intersection, not the stop signs per se. A pedestrian island had already been installed at a cost of $5,190, according to the paper. And the pedestrian island and helped to slow traffic, according to the H-T.
But the apparent logic of the op-ed goes something like this: Given that the council approved the installation of stop signs, the money for the pedestrian island had been wasted.
Based on the Google Street View imagery from 2007, which predates the pedestrian island and the stop sign, other improvements were also made in the vicinity of the intersection.
The entrance to the park’s parking lot was moved to align with the intersection, making the driveway entrance one of the stops in a four-way stop configuration. Comparing the Google Street View imagery from 2007 and 2019, it looks like stormwater improvements were also made. A sidewalk on the west side of Henderson was added.
I’m not sure why the H-T analyzed the pedestrian island and the stop sign as an either-or choice.
But choices like that are always harder if the amount of funding for pedestrian infrastructure is not adequate to achieve safety goals. You should be able to walk anywhere you need to go in Bloomington and know you’re safe doing it.
Achieving that goal is going to take more money and attention than Bloomington currently invests in pedestrian infrastructure.
I wish city councilmembers would come together to head in that direction. There’s nothing stopping them except for a lack of political will.