As Stevens Point’s bicycle lane network nears completion, residents still divided

WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) – Six months ago, Ella Janson of Stevens Point was hit by a car on her way back home from the winter farmer’s market. Cycling down the sidewalk, a car turning right was only looking for others cars–not bicycles. With a battered shin, a damaged bike, and some cracked eggs–it was a turning point for her passion for better safety for cyclists in the city.

“I’m really passionate about this issue,” she said, stopping to talk with NewsChannel 7 on her way to the market Friday afternoon. “Luckily they were going really slow and they were really apologetic; it was a learning experience for both of us.”

She’s extremely supportive of a nearly-4 year project in the city that’s now nearing completion, the Bicycle Transportation Network Improvements plan that’s drawn a fair amount of criticism and controversy after the city’s cost share in the program skyrocketed in June. Originally set to be four-fifths funded by the Wisconsin DOT’s Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) grant, awarded in 2017, the city received just one bid for the project in June of this year, a bid that amounted to more than $200,000 above what they expected.

TAP grant funding doesn’t budge when bids return higher than expected, so the city council was faced with the decision of increasing the city’s share of the project–originally about $70,000, now about $320,000–or leaving the project altogether and returning the grand funding to the state. Instead, they moved forward.

Now in late August, the project is nearly complete, but parts of the city’s population still aren’t happy. In a community Facebook page, citizens are still debating the program’s merits. “[It’s a] waste of tax dollars, no one is following these,” one poster wrote.

“This is a project that is extremely controversial. Could we have found better use for the money? Absolutely,” Mayor Mike Wiza reflected. “Is this a waste of money? No, I don’t think it is.”

“The main thing for me was maintaining credibility with the granting agency,” freshman alderman Thomas Leek, who sits on the city’s bicycle commission, said. A cyclist himself, he hasn’t been part of the project over its four-year time-span, but the concern for him, the mayor, and other council members was the grant-funded portion of the project. Leaving grant money unused and returning it to the state leaves the city less likely to be awarded grants in the future, they believe. (A DOT spokesperson wasn’t immediately able to put NewsChannel 7 in touch with an expert who could weigh in on whether this generally impacts future grant awards.)

“If we had rejected this grant, not only would we have lost it, but we would very likely have difficulty in getting another grant for any other project down the road,” Wiza said.

In Wisconsin, the DOT has helped fund (or is currently helping fund) 88 projects through TAP grants, which are targeted for alternative transportation like bus safety and cycling. 15 of the projects have been in north central Wisconsin since the program’s launch in 2015, which distributes federal dollars to qualifying programs.

Around the city, freshly-painted lanes and bicycle icons are sparkling on main thoroughfares and crews are still hard at work finishing the project. While bicycles have always been able to use Stevens Point’s roads and sidewalks, the markings provide both safety and clarity to the fourteen miles of commuting routes around the city. Some icons designate existing roads to include cyclists, others define separate cycling lanes, some of which allow cyclists to run counter to one-way traffic.

“We have an obligation to represent all of our community,” Wiza said, also a cyclist. “Just because I don’t like something or I don’t use something doesn’t mean it’s not important for the community.”

For Ella, she and her friends–almost all of whom frequently use bicycles to get around town–are passionate about the changes. Hyper-aware since her accident, she believes the routes will heighten awareness for drivers towards bicycles and for cyclists to know the rules.

“It’s really important to feel safe and not be stressed about getting hit,” she noted. “It definitely changed my routes in terms of what I feel comfortable biking on.”

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