By Kathy Feist
Margie Haugh was driving along 99th Street in the Bannister Acres neighborhood when she soon found herself facing an oncoming fire truck. The narrow street offered no shoulder on which to pull her car, only open ditches. “The fire truck stopped and had to inch by me,” she recalls. “Time was wasted on the way to an emergency.”
Haugh, who is president of the Bannister Acres Neighborhood Association, says the aging, narrow street that runs from Blue Ridge Rd. to James A. Reed Rd. “is cracked and sides of the street are crumbling off.” “This extremely narrow street is bordered by deep ditches on both sides, making it impossible for drivers to pull over when emergency vehicles approach,” she notes, adding that several accidents have occurred on the street over the years.
Frustrated, Haugh enlisted the help of Karry Palmer, Chairman of Hickman Mills United Neighborhoods, to submit a request to the Public Improvements Advisory Committee (PIAC) for funds to widen the road.
Palmer says he has submitted numerous requests on behalf of the 11 united neighborhood associations in the past six years as chairman. “I have a list that is four to five pages long,” he says. Not all are approved. This one was.
The “East 99th Street Blue Ridge Boulevard to James A. Reed Road Project” was submitted to PIAC in 2018 and funded $100,000 for a predesign.
The predesign, a preliminary engineering study, would evaluate various road improvement options, ranging from sidewalk construction to road repair and replacement.
Project No. 89060833 was awarded to civil engineering firm BHC Rhodes in June 2020.
In January 2021, a 64-page study suggesting five alternative designs was finally submitted to the city. Only two designs were recommended by the city: Design Alternative #1 and #5.
The least expensive design–Alternative #1–recommended sidewalks on the north side of the street to the tune of $1.65 million.
The most expensive design–Alternative #5–recommended complete removal and reconstruction of the ¾ mile-long street, sidewalks on the north end, added curbs and guttering, storm sewer and driveway improvements, and new retaining walls. The two-lane street would be widened to the standard 28 feet, including curbs and guttering. The estimated cost was around $6 million.
The remaining options did not include widening the road and were not recommended.
Residents, who were presented the plans in May, were perplexed. Only one design included widening the road and its cost was spectacularly above the entire annual fund of $4 million allotted each PIAC district. No one remembered requesting sidewalks (although the original request did mention walkability). It seemed the sidewalks and added-on improvements pushed the cost of the project out of serious contention. “They put in stuff we did not ask for,” says Palmer. “Is the city just trying to waste money?”
The community worried the street project had met a dead end.
Project Manager Randy Alewine cleared up the confusion. “They need to go back to PIAC to find what is appropriate to do,” he says. “The predesign study is done. The next phase is the design, which will depend on which option is selected.”
Hickman Mills United Neighborhood will now need to request funds for a design. If approved, then the following steps for completion can go in different ways.
Heather Bray, the city’s newly appointed PIAC coordinator, says the costly project can remain with PIAC and be divided into “smaller chunks submitted at different times.” Or it can be funded through other city sources, such as the GO Bond.
Hickman Mills United Neighborhood, which lies in the 5th District, has two opportunities to meet with PIAC representatives and city councilmembers for ideas: once in July and another in August. Like all other neighborhoods in the area, they have until August 31 to submit a request.
In the meantime, city Assistant Engineer Chad Thompson concedes that engineers will add improvements that they think best serve the community. “We want to see that the pavement is in the condition it needs to be in,” he says. “You can’t just tag onto the edges with overlay on an existing road.”
Thompson says costs can escalate easily with sidewalks and streets. What might seem like a simple sidewalk may require removing a tree, which then must be replaced with five trees according to city policy. Slanted driveways must be reconstructed so they provide the same slope as the sidewalk. And ADA ramps leading to streets must be taken into consideration.
Finally, Thompson says city engineers are equally as interested as the communities they serve to make the city safer and more livable. “We live here too,” he says.