ASHLAND – A local citizen voiced her concerns about the difficulties of pedestrian travel during last week’s Ashland City Council meeting.
Diane Rico asked to be on the agenda for the Aug. 13 meeting to talk about the deplorable state of the pedestrian tunnel under the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad line and the lack pedestrian access across Highway 6.
With new houses going up across Highway 6 in Whitetail Estates, there needs to be a safe way to cross from the east side of Ashland, according to Rico. But the only option is far from safe, she said.
“The tunnel is the only legal passage way from the east to the west side of town,” she said.
Rico said the state of the tunnel is terrible, with weeds obscuring the entrance and water standing inside, creating a breeding ground for mosquitoes that could potentially carry diseases like West Nile virus. There are also electrical issues inside the tunnel and it is much too short to navigate.
“This is a public health issue not just for us but for everyone,” she said.
Council Member Jim Anderson agreed with Rico.
“It’s the pits,” he said. “I am ashamed of this.”
Anderson would like the city to make the tunnel not only usable, but also more visually appealing.
“Something we’re proud of,” he added.
City Attorney Mark Fahleson said the railroad is the entity responsible for the tunnel, not the City of Ashland.
“We can’t touch it without their permission,” he said.
City Administrator Jessica Quady said they are working to find the original agreement with Burlington Northern Santa Fe regarding the tunnel, but have run into roadblocks. The only paperwork they have found is not signed, and it is between the railroad and Saunders County, not Ashland.
The unsigned document states that the county is responsible to build and maintain the tunnel, Quady said. It is unclear why the county is involved, and Quady doesn’t think they will take responsibility, she added.
Rico told the council she has a group of volunteers that would be willing to help clean up the tunnel. But Council Member Paul Gossin said the city must determine ownership of the bridge before allowing volunteers to work on the tunnel.
Rico also mentioned the sidewalk leading up to the tunnel.
“I remember how nice that brick pathway used to look going into that tunnel,” she said.
Mayor Rick Grauerholz told Rico that the city is working to replace the sidewalk from the Silver Street bridge to the tunnel.
“We’re not sitting here idle. We’re working on it,” he said. “But we want to spend tax dollars wisely.”
Even if the tunnel is repaired and cleaned up, there is still no good way for people to cross Highway 6 on foot, Rico told the council. Rico advocated a pedestrian crossing at the intersection of Highways 6 and 66, but only if there was a stop light.
“I think a stop light would be appropriate to go in there and I don’t think you want a crosswalk to go in there without a stop light,” she said.
Highway 66 is a main entrance not only to Ashland, but also to nearby Mahoney State Park, Rico said. Mahoney is the most popular state park in the state.
“I would think some of those would be reason for a stop light,” she said.
Rico is among many Ashland area residents advocating for a traffic light at the busy intersection. The Nebraska Department of Transportation is responsible for the intersection, and officials have said the area does not meet federal warrants for a light. But a traffic study is planned now that school has started.
Also dealing with traffic, the council opted not to pursue a traffic study for the intersection of 16th and Silver streets in downtown Ashland.
After a resident requested the city council look into visibility issues at that intersection, Quady consulted city engineer JEO Consulting Group. The engineering firm suggested a traffic analysis scope of services, which would cost $5,450.
Quady researched the number of accidents at the intersection in question, as well as where Silver street intersects 13th and 15th streets. She told the council that there were three accidents at 16th Street and one each at 13th and 15th streets in the last 10 years. No drivers or passengers were injured in these collisions, she added.
“No accident is looked upon favorably, of course, but to have five accidents in three intersections in 10 years isn’t terrible,” Quady told the council.
The council determined by consensus that the project was not warranted.
“I don’t see any reason to spend $5,500 on this,” said Gossin.
The city will still pursue possible changes to parking in the 16th and Silver area to address the visibility problem, however.
In other action, the council voted to deny a request for an extension and to order the removal of the nuisance at 1909 Boyd Street, according to city ordinances.
Homeowner Jim Garman Sr. was not in attendance as council members looked at pictures taken earlier that day showed wooden boxes, a truck topper and trailers full of junk still on the property, even though he was given a deadline of Aug. 13 to clean up his property.
The council has been working with Garman since May on the issue, approving multiple extensions of the original deadline.
City staff should be on site when the cleanup begins to inform the contractor what needs to be taken away and what will stay, Fahleson said. The cost of the cleanup will be charged to Garman.
The council approved another extension for Mike Lesley, whose property at 2602 Adams Street was also declared a nuisance due to junk and debris. Council members told Lesley they recognized his continued efforts to remedy the situation, but warned him that he must step up his clean up.
“We are getting more serious about it now,” said Gossin.
The council gave Lesley until Sept. 5 to remove items determined to be a nuisance.