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Widening project narrows

NORTH LIBERTY– Planned upgrades to Highway 965 will move forward, but not at the pace expected, and probably without financial assistance.
Lack of federal earmark dollars, the defeat of the Local Option Sales Tax ballot measure and a denied grant application has eliminated much of the funding the City had hoped to use to kick off the $30 million, 7-phased project.
“Since our Sales Tax didn’t pass, that sort of helped us decide we need to limit this a little bit,” said North Liberty Mayor Tom Salm, before asking for input from council members and city staff on various scaled-back versions of Phase I.
The first phase of the approved design originally included adding two traffic lanes and turn lanes, pedestrian walkways, streetscapes and traffic signals from Ashley Court to Lions Drive, installing signals at Cherry Street and making improvements to the Hawkeye Court intersection, as well as realigning Fairview Lane and Golf View Drive, all estimated to cost around $4.6 million, including engineering fees.
At the Tuesday, May 26 council meeting, City Administrator Ryan Heiar presented scaled-back options that would still address safety and traffic issues.
“We decided, to get the most bang for our buck, we would look at intersection improvements. We think that will help with the overall flow of traffic,” said Heiar.
The council considered four scenarios ranging in costs from $1.5 million to $3.6 million, depending on the number of intersections included in each scenario.
Currently, the City has already been approved to receive $285,000 in stimulus funds for signalizing Cherry Street, and $274,012 for the Fairview/Golfview realignment from a state transportation program. Heiar asked the council for direction on the proposed cut-back to the project, partly because those state and federal dollars come with strings attached.
“The DOT has some pretty strenuous timeline restrictions,” said Heiar. “We really need to get moving forward so we can get this project through their design process and out to bid.”
Council members unanimously voiced support for Scenario A, the most comprehensive– and most costly– of the four options. It includes intersection build-outs at Ashley, Lions and Hawkeye drives, signalization of the Cherry Street intersection and the Fairview/Golf View alignment project.
Council member Jim Wozniak said he knew it would have the biggest tax impact, but it was time to get serious about going forward with the highway.
“It’s important to do the full build-out,” Wozniak said. “Let’s get some meaningful traffic reductions and also something the citizens can look at and say, ‘I see the vision.’”
Heiar also presented potential funding methods, including Tax Increment Financing and General Obligation bonds. He emphasized that the numbers were only “thrown out for discussion,” and there were still other potential sources for outside funding.
If none of those outside sources pan out, however, property owners would be looking at a property tax increase of approximately 44 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. A resident with a home valued at $200,000 would pay an additional $40 in taxes per year.
Without taking formal action, the council gave the nod to proceed to the design phase for the reduced improvement project.
The downsizing is an effort to ease the tax burden for property owners, said Heiar in a telephone interview Friday.
“We have said from day one, if we weren’t going to get subsidies from outside sources, we would look to scale back,” said Heiar. “Because $4.6 million is an awfully big expense, and it would have a sizeable affect on property taxes.”
But Heiar said the City would also continue to seek other project dollars from additional stimulus funding and through new state transportation programs, as well as reapplying for the Iowa Clean Action Program and other competitive grants.
“We are moving forward as if we won’t get money from the feds, but we could still get federal earmark funding or other stimulus funds,” said Heiar. “The rest would be funded through property taxes. But it’s important to note the 44 cents is an estimate based on things that could change, like assessed valuations. This is a conservative estimate, and that number could come down, potentially.”
“We will always be working to find additional funding for this highway,” he added.
When the design phase is complete, the project should go up for construction bids in October or November, 2009.