PLATTSMOUTH – Hopes of leaving the intersection unrestricted at First Avenue and U.S. Highway 75 when the expressway project is completed from Plattsmouth to Murray were dashed Monday night when council members voted to leave plans up to Nebraska Department of Transportation Engineers (NDOT).
Controversy over the intersection started to heat up in 2017 following a NDOT information meeting about the project in 2017 and when local developer Steve Willey learned restrictions would be placed on the intersection which adjoins Westside Development on the west side of the highway.
Willey, president of Westside Development, addressed city council members during the Citizen Comment time allotted at the beginning of meetings. Willey explained he and his partner, Merle Pieper, constructed the keno operation off Highway 75 in 1992 as well as a convenience store.
Willey: “The importance of Highway 75 to the economic well-being of Plattsmouth cannot be overstated,” he said. “One has only to look at where new businesses have built to see the vital role the highway plays in bringing both business and customers to our city.”
He identified the success of those business to visibility and convenience of access.
Willey: “The intersection at First Avenue was built in 1989 with the development of Pamida (now Shopko) and other businesses have followed.”
Businesses in the development now include Hy-Vee grocery and convenience store, Scooter’s, H & R Block, Little Caesar’s Pizza and Cost Cutters.
In 2005, First Baptist Church constructed a new building to the south of Westside Development, which increased the traffic turning off Highway 75 and into the church parking lot at First Avenue.
At Monday’s meeting, City Administrator Erv Portis noted that in 2010 he asked NDOT District 2 Engineer Tim Weander if NDOT would allow a traffic signal at the intersection to be incorporated in the expressway design.
Weander: “We will not allow a traffic signal on First Avenue due to spacing and progression.”
Portis: “We asked several times and were told ‘no.’”
Plans for the expressway were revealed in depth at the NDOT 2017 information meeting in Plattsmouth. The plans included restricting the First Avenue Intersection to right and left turns from U.S. 75 to First Avenue and right turns from First Avenue to US Highway 75. The plan prohibits left- turn access form First Avenue to US Highway 75 would be prohibited.
According to NDOT, the restriction is necessary to improve mobility, safety and reliability between the Omaha metro area and communities along the highway.
Portis: “The project will reduce the number of stops from at-grade intersections, time in traffic and wear and tear on vehicles from intercity traffic using the route,” he said in reference to the NDOT reason for the restriction.
Portis added that Willey’s own consultants acknowledged that the expressway would improve the roadway, reduce the number of stops from at-grade intersections, reduce time in traffic, improve travel times and reduce costs from accidents, to name a few benefits.
Since that time, Willey has changed his opinion, although he agreed the intersection in its current state is “somewhat unsafe.”
Willey: “Although crash history doesn’t support these concerns, we know many people avoid it altogether. But with proper design, those concerns can be addressed.”
He asked the council to review the issue and ask state officials to consider leaving the intersection unrestricted.
Ward 4 Councilman Terry Kerns championed Willey’s cause at the council meeting. Kerns noted that Portis focused on the NDOT refusing to place a traffic signal at the intersection instead of leaving it unrestricted.
Kerns: “People are asking us to be the voice to keep that access unrestricted. It would be up to NDOT to decide whether to put a signal there. These stakeholders are very concerned about this intersection. Restricting it will increase traffic on Avenue B and take traffic off First Avenue. I’d like to see that traffic divided between two spots. We’re putting a bump in the road for those economic developments trying to run out there.”
Ward 2 Councilwoman Cheryl Grimshaw disagreed.
Grimshaw: “The design as the state put forward still allows left turns. That highway has always scared me, and I think that safety should be our first concern…. The design does not restrict access into those businesses. It just limits crossing. You can still access the businesses.”
Grimshaw also said the city has already asked NDOT several times to change the plan for the intersection.
Grimshaw: “We’ve asked them and this is their answer. How many times do we have to ask?”
Council president and Ward 2 representative Jeanie Brookhouser agreed. “It’s difficult to see (at that intersection) at night, especially if when it’s raining. I would hate to see the city say they will be in favor of having that unrestricted and then have a fatal accident there.”
Portis emphasized that the council approved the agreement with NDOT regarding the expressway design in 2016. Public hearings were also conducted about the plans without contention.
The agreement, Kerns said, includes the ability to amend it if both parties mutually agree on the change.
Kerns: “The safest highway in the word is the one that has no intersections. Our job is to look out for the economic well-being of the community, so we don’t die on the vine.”
Rather than lobby for keeping the intersection unrestricted, Ward 1 Councilman Steve Riese suggested the council explore other solutions to the problem.
Kerns urged the council to create a committee of three to study the intersection over the next 60-90 days upon which time they would return to the council with recommendations.
He made a motion to create the committee, but the motion failed with Grimshaw, Porter, Minahan, and Wiemer voting against it.
Kerns asked Lambert as the mayor to vote on the issue. Lambert said he would have voted ‘no.’
Lambert: “The citizens told me it’s a dangerous intersection and no one should be able to cross it. I haven’t found one citizen who wants to keep it unrestricted.”