On 4–5 vote, city council rejects direct oversight of Bloomington traffic calming, greenways program

On a vote split along familiar lines, Bloomington’s city council has rejected an ordinance that would have required council approval for the installation of new traffic calming and greenway projects.

The vote came on Wednesday night just a few minutes before midnight, at a meeting that started at 6:30 p.m. The ordinance, which was sponsored by Dave Rollo failed on a 4–5 vote.

It was a familiar 4-4 split, with Sue Sgambelluri providing the deciding vote to give one side a majority.

Supporting the ordinance were Rollo, Jim Sims, Ron Smith, and Susan Sandberg. Voting against it were Sgambelluri, Matt Flaherty, Kate Rosenbarger, Isabel Piedmont-Smith, and Steve Volan.

The outcome hung in the balance until Sgambelluri weighed in. As council president and chair of the meeting, she was last to offer her view.

For Sgambelluri, the issue boiled down to a single question about the Traffic Calming and Greenways Program (TCGP), which was enacted on a unanimous vote of this same edition of the city council in October 2020 [Ord 20-17]

Sgambelluri’s question about the TCGP was this: “Do I believe this is a fundamentally flawed process?” Her answer: “I guess I don’t.”

The TCGP had revised and renamed the Neighborhood Traffic Safety Program (NTSP), which was enacted in 1999.

More significant than the name change, the TCGP removed from the NTSP the required city council approval of the installation of traffic calming and greenway projects, and reduced the signature threshold for affected households from 50 to 30 percent.

Sgambelluri pointed to some missteps made by the city’s plan commission staff in handling the Hawthorne-Weatherstone neighborhood greenway project, which has been paused since late last year, pending the outcome of Rollo’s proposed ordinance. Rollo brought forward the ordinance in response to the Hawthorne-Weatherstone project.

But Sgambelluri was keen to separate Rollo’s proposed ordinance from the missteps in a specific project.

Among the missteps was an email message sent on Oct. 18, 2022 by planner Ryan Robling to an Elm Heights resident that said about the Hawthorne-Weatherstone greenway project: “This project will open bidding, roughly, a week after the second public hearing on Monday (10/24), and will close in December.”

So at the Oct. 24 meeting, which was held at the Bryan Park shelter, attendees had an understanding that bidding would be opened roughly a week later. They objected on the grounds that whatever input that they gave that night could not possibly be incorporated into the design before bids were solicited.

Apparently not aware of Robling’s email message of last year, until the council was well into its deliberations on Wednesday, was Bloomington’s assistant director of transportation Beth Rosenbarger. Beth Rosenbarger is the sister of councilmember Kate Rosenbarger, and married to councilmember Matt Faherty.

About the idea that the project was going to go to bid a week after the Bryan Park shelter meeting, Beth Rosenbarger said, “So I am not aware of—it became, I guess, a rumor or confusion that people thought the project was going to bid a week after the second meeting. It wasn’t.”

Beth Rosenbarger continued, “It kept getting said by residents at the second meeting. We did not send the project to bid.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, after Rollo forwarded Robling’s email message to staff and other councilmembers, Beth Rosenbarger conceded, “That email happened. It was a mistake, because they conflated a different project, which was the Maxwell Lane traffic calming project.”

Beth Rosenbarger said the expected timeline for the bidding was clarified later at the Bryan Park meeting, but added, “I understand it was stated in an email. And that is very confusing. And I know that residents were confused on that. It was not our intention to take that project to bid a week after the second meeting. That wouldn’t be following the process.”

Beth Rosenbarger said, “So we did make a mistake and I’m sorry for that error.”

The missteps on the one project did not persuade Sgambelluri that the city council needed to make final decisions on individual traffic calming and greenway projects. She was convinced by remarks from Bloomington’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator Hank Duncan that the city’s planning staff “are committed to receiving resident input and incorporating it, in as productive a way as possible.”

Duncan had arrived in city council chambers from a public meeting that same night about the Morningside neighborhood greenway project. He described to the council how around 230 mailers were sent to residents along that street, alerting them to the meeting, which was held at Park Ridge East park shelter.

About 35 to 40 people attended, Duncan said. He called it a “nice, big lively crowd” who came to talk about traffic calming and their experiences in the neighborhood.

Duncan called it “eye opening.” He said he made his talking points about what the planning staff wanted to achieve in the process, but in the question-and-answer time residents shared some experiences that Duncan said, “I just would not have considered.” He continued, “They were talking about different intersections and why this happens and why that happens.”

Duncan said that meeting attendees talked about different aspects of living in their neighborhood that he would not have known, just from looking at the traffic data and the studies.

One of the issues that Rollo identified in favor of the council’s role as a final decision maker for traffic calming projects is the council’s statutory authority as the fiscal body of the city. Rollo pointed to the expenditure of funds on the traffic calming devices for the Hawthorne-Weatherstone greenway saying that the money would be better spent on installation of a traffic signal at Hawthorne and Atwater.

Speaking against the ordinance during public commentary, Greg Alexander responded to the idea of the competing fiscal demands of fixing dangerous intersections and building better nonmotorized networks, saying both need to be done.

“I hear a lot of people basically asking why is there a greenways program instead of doing spot interventions at dangerous intersections around town. We need to do both,” Alexander said. He continued, “All successful Vision Zero programs have both parts. One part does interventions on the ‘high injury’ network. One part establishes a low stress network. We need to do both.”

In-person public comment on Rollo’s ordinance was uniformly against it. Tracy Bee’s remarks reflected the sentiments of many. She introduced herself as “a parent and the reluctant president of the Maple Heights Neighborhood Association.” She described Maple Heights as a neighborhood that is full of children, full of people who walk, bike—some by choice, some not.”

Bee continued, “We are in desperate need of traffic calming, if not sidewalks. Actually, we need sidewalks, but sidewalks are expensive.” To give the city council final decision making authority would make traffic calming a “political process,” she said. That would put Maple Heights at a disadvantage, Bee said. “Many of our residents aren’t as politically engaged as other neighborhoods—they’re too busy, they’re working, they have children.”

Weighing in on the Zoom video conferencing platform, Paul Kern responded to the idea that the city council’s involvement as the final decision maker would politicize the process. “It’s also an elected group,” Kern said. He continued, “It’s a group that’s citywide, and I think it allows for more public input.” Kern added, “And I trust the city council…and I would trust them at the end of the process.” Kern also said, “I feel that the chances of acquiring equity would be better with the city council, because everybody could be involved.”

Also weighing in on Zoom was Eric Ost who reprised some of the same themes he hit during Monday’s meeting of the bicycle and pedestrian safety commission, which recommended unanimously against the council’s adoption of the ordinance.

Ost said that to claim that the city council’s involvement is purely political is “intended to operate as affective polarization,” adding that “it’s an unhelpful construction that propagates a harmful myth.”

Restoring the city council’s final decision making role would “bring helpful focus and attention to project improvements, identify and advance potential synergies for balanced funding allocation, and convene a customary opportunity that will support greater public inclusion and timely participation,” Ost said.

On the city council, Jim Sims spoke in favor of the ordinance, saying, “I guess the biggest issue that I’m having personally is why is there such opposition to council engagement. Maybe someone can explain that to me.” Sims added, “I’ve heard it’s political in nature—it becomes politicized. Maybe I’m not seeing it correctly—why can’t we be involved?”

Among the points that councilmember Matt Flaherty made was that the ordinance had been a response to a single project, the Hawthorne-Weatherstone greenway, and the disagreement of some residents with the “existence of a greenway essentially in their neighborhood.”

Flaherty said that the ordinance would likely “kill the greenways program altogether.” Flaherty indicated that with the council as the final decision maker, it would create uncertainty, which could mean that the staff time and the money invested in design work up to that point would be wasted.

Flaherty concluded, “I think that’s a very misguided approach to trying to address concerns about one project.”

2 thoughts on “On 4–5 vote, city council rejects direct oversight of Bloomington traffic calming, greenways program

  1. The whole problem is when a commission makes the final decisions there isn’t a way we can go to the election ballot and get rid of bad leaders. But I would suggest readers you remember who voted to keep the public out of the process

  2. They claim to prioritize building a network across the city, but only invite the very nearest residents to the project for input, denying those of us who use the affected roads for our commute the chance to have a say in any individual project or in how the projects are prioritized. They are mixing up the ideas of whether a greenway is supposed to provide a calm space for local children to play safely in the street or to provide a means for people to get places. They’re using a process that is appropriate for the former while trying to justify it with the latter.

    These issues make it very easy to see why oversight by the city council would be useful. As it is, neighbors try to have input, and are simply shot down, told that they don’t know what the engineers know. There are so many projects in the city that would be desirable to residents and other users, so it is hard to understand why resources are going where they are unwanted instead.

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