No stimulus money for bike tunnel plan

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009
— The controversial East Milwaukee Street bike tunnel is coming back to the Janesville City Council.

The city recently learned the tunnel does not qualify for federal transportation stimulus money.

City Manager Eric Levitt said staff would bring the tunnel back to the council as part of the reconstruction of that section of street. That includes building a previously approved roundabout at Wuthering Hills Drive, the site of a deadly accident in 2007.

Staff is exploring other low-cost ways to improve safety at the mid-street bike crossing between Shannon Drive and Wright Road, Levitt said.

The council OK'd the tunnel on a 4-3 vote in June 2008. But it has yet to approve the borrowing. The city had received $235,000 in federal money, and that made some members reluctant to vote against the tunnel even though costs escalated to $670,000 over the years.

The issue has proven to be one of the more controversial city issues in recent years.

Some residents believe the tunnel is needed for safety. Others say there are cheaper ways to improve safety, including something as simple as building a barrier and requiring users to walk or bike a block to the traffic light at Wright Road.

In the months following the vote, the crashing economy changed sentiment among council members who approved the tunnel. Two council members who voted to build the tunnel—George Brunner and Russ Steeber—said prior to their re-election in April that they would reconsider their votes.

When the federal government started the stimulus program, the council OK'd applying for money for the tunnel as long as no local money would be used. Even that vote was controversial because some residents noted that federal money still is tax money.

Staff soon found that the tunnel was not eligible for stimulus money because the city previously received $235,000 in federal funding through a state grant, Levitt said.

Projects submitted for transportation stimulus money were required to be "shovel ready," and cities had a stringent deadline, Levitt said. Levitt believes many other cities found themselves in similar positions: those projects that were shovel ready already had funding lined up.

"Local governments need to know before we start a design where our funding sources are going to be," he said.

After learning stimulus money couldn't be used for the tunnel, the city focused on getting money for 1.8 miles of bike trail, for which it received $435,000 in stimulus money, and street repaving, for which it got about $1.6 million in stimulus money.

Levitt said he recently read that federal officials are disappointed because most of the transportation stimulus money is being used for repaving rather than construction.

"What I found was their criteria sort of established the types of projects that, at least in Janesville's case, we could even qualify for," Levitt said.

"We wanted to do new construction, but because of the way it was set up the only ones eligible were repaving.

"I think their own criteria may have led to the results they found."

Still, Janesville will get immediate benefit from the repaving, Levitt said. Current scheduled streets will be paved, and some paving was moved up two to three years.

The city will get $1.5 million in improvements that local taxpayers won't have to pay for, Levitt said.

Last updated: 10:53 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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