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Connecting the community: Columbus finally seeing viaducts coming together

March 24, 2019 GMT

The City of Columbus is likely less than two years away from having a full viaduct system in town that has been in the planning phase for the better part of a century.

Eighty years is the time frame governing officials place on how long discussion revolving around viaducts lasted before real progress was made with the opening of the Third Avenue viaduct in August 2018.

With the 18th Avenue pedestrian walkway completed early this year and the 12th Avenue viaduct project being contracted out in February, the finish line is finally in sight for all of those who played a role with helping to receive voter approval on the three-piece package at the polls in January 2008.

One of the main questions local leaders now hear from residents regarding viaduct construction is why it has taken this long to come to fruition – 80 years is quite the extended period of time. Speaking with a few key players who helped get the projects off the ground in the early 2000s, it’s clear that the viaduct conversation wasn’t nearly as amicable as it is today.

“There was always enough opposition that it never got off of first base,” Columbus Mayor Jim Bulkley said. “And you look back on all of that today and you wonder why it was always such a (tough) discussion. But, it’s really just the change of the times and people’s perceptions.”

In 2002, a single viaduct project – Third Avenue – came before the council and was met with a split vote that was ultimately advanced by then-Mayor Gary Griebelhaus to a public vote. Residents, though, weren’t ready for action to be taken, which they displayed overwhelmingly with 63 percent of people voting against action being taken.

So it was back to the drawing boards for the city, and this time, the mission was to include and educate as many people possible about what the projects entailed.

“The problem with getting it approved was mostly just getting the (residents) to buy into it,” former mayor and current District 22 state Sen. Mike Moser said. “They had to buy into it so that they were willing to vote to approve the package.

“So we spent a lot of time researching it, and a viaducts committee met and we talked with the Department of Roads, Union Pacific, other stakeholders, landowners in various corridors that could be affected by (viaduct construction). It ended up having to be a very inclusive process with everyone involved that was likely to have questions or concerns about it.”

Bulkley, who at the time was city council president, served as chairman for the viaduct committee working toward project approval. He, too, noted how tedious and time consuming it was to garner public support. One of the keys, he added, was making sure the committee was well represented with various business leaders to spread project knowledge.

“One of Mike’s (Moser) goals was to get this public committee put together that was diverse enough to come up with a consensus,” Bulkley said. “And it was a diverse group of people. We had downtown people, residential people, people in education – really anyone and everyone. Just people who had a lot of good ideas.”

That seemed to do the trick, with the public with nearly a 4-1 vote (3,612 in favor and 899 against) approving the new referendum six years later.

The 13th Avenue and 18th Avenue projects were earmarked at $11 million, with 7 percent coming from the city’s pockets, 13 percent Union Pacific Railroad and the remaining from state and federal governments.

The 12th Avenue project was contracted by the City Council to Omaha-based Hawkins Construction Company, with the low project bid of $10,908,062.47, and the council unanimously approved (Ward 4 Council Member Prent Roth wasn’t in attendance).

That build is expected to start at the end of this month – weather approving – and be completed in 18-24 months, as previously reported by The Telegram. The project is being 80-percent funded through the Nebraska Department of Roads and the Federal Highway Administration, 10 percent by Union Pacific and 10 percent by the city.

Although the Third Avenue structure has been open for nearly seven months, it’s still technically under construction.

“It’s not totally done, some landscaping and other things have to be done for UP (Union Pacific) and the state to sign off on it as being completed,” Bulkley said. “It’s little things, but those little things have to be done for them to say it’s complete.”

Those “little” things are the reason residents living in the Third Avenue viaduct area are still being disturbed by train horns.

“For some of those residents the horns will stop, and for people around the (at-grade) crossings it’s a big deal all that noise made by train horns,” Bulkley said. “That’s still one of the calls I get all the time, asking why the horns haven’t stopped because the viaduct is open.

“And that’s the thing, it hasn’t stopped because UP hasn’t officially declared it as open. And there is a set of federal regulations that dictate how you can make the horns stop at an at-grade crossing. It’s not like you can just make a phone call and tell UP to stop doing it.”

The reason Union Pacific has heavily invested in the projects, Bulkley said, is because it’s a huge safety benefit to their employees and the community at large if an at-grade crossing isn’t open. It also always smoother travel consistently down the tracks.

Once all projects are complete, just two north/south at-grade railroad crossings will be open in Columbus, at 23rd and 26th avenues. Currently, there are open at-grade crossings also located at 21st and 25th avenues. Project completion will mean more silence for some residents living in areas currently plagued with continuous horn blowing.

Moser said that the train situation played a role with numerous residents previously pushing for viaducts.

“Quite often the tracks were blocked with trains and people had to go out of their way to wait for all the trains to pass,” the state senator said. “It was a lot of frustration for people and I think in the end that’s why they wanted to support it. They felt like it was time and we were able to get the best viaducts we could with the least amount of tax money required, which is why we were able to arrive where we are (now).”

While the vote was unanimous regarding contracting the 12th Avenue project bid, Ward 1 Council Member Beth Augustine-Schulte expressed her apprehension relating to some of the outcomes of having these structures built.

With the closure of at-grade crossings at 21st and 25th avenues, she argued that it might not provide some residents south of the tracks an easy enough route north across town in a time of emergency.

“In the past, I have expressed that when we have our viaducts completed, I just have a lot of concerns of the limited number of intersections that we are going to have from the south side of town to the north side of time,” the council member said during a meeting last month. “I have a lot of concerns about how the traffic is going to flow, how that is going to create movement for people.”

During that meeting, Bulkley noted how the public knew what they were voting for when they passed the resolution permitting viaduct growth. Augustine-Schulte, though, added that the city has seen significant changes over the past decade.

“Since the (residents) first voted on that and since the package went through, a lot of dynamics in the layout of the community have changed,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of housing and a lot of neighborhoods and a lot of other things that have changed in the area.”

Augustine-Schulte acknowledged during the meeting, though, that her viewpoint is in the minority on this subject.

Others who battled firmly for years to make the project happen, naturally, are feeling a real sense of accomplishment.

“It’s a good feeling because it’s nice to see something that you and a lot of others felt like made sense come together,” Bulkley said. “And the majority of people also think it’s a good thing. There was so much collaboration and it’s all finally getting done.”

Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at sam.pimper@lee.net.