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Columbia Missourian

Grasslands, Providence Road projects stir controversy

By Elizabeth Pearl
January 30, 2013 | 10:49 p.m. CST
Traffic on Providence Road builds up during rush hour Wednesday. Proposed road changes are designed to ease the congestion near the Grasslands Neighborhood.

COLUMBIA – After years of planning among residents, city officials and the state Highway Department, a plan to alleviate traffic congestion on Providence Road and the Grasslands Neighborhood has sparked considerable debate.

Fifth Ward City Council candidates have voiced opposing opinions about the project, with one calling the $6.6 million project too complex and a waste of money. And the Historic Preservation Commission is raising concerns about the planned demolition of eight homes in the Grasslands that would pave the way for new street connections.

Grasslands residents, meanwhile, feel they have unintentionally become part of a larger city issue after seeking a solution to what seemed like a simple neighborhood traffic problem.

During two years of talks about how to address congestion on Providence and in the Grasslands, a $1 million plan to address the problem by laying a street through the yard of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity has evolved into a two-phase project at nearly seven times the cost. It calls for building new streets to connect Burnam, Bingham and Brandon roads in the Grasslands, realigning intersections with Stadium, installing new traffic signals and creating a longer right-hand turn lane for southbound motorists exiting Providence Road onto Stadium.

The City Council approved the first phase of the project on Nov. 19. It will include the destruction of two homes to create a new road between Burnam and Bingham roads and the addition of traffic signals at Providence Road's intersections with Burnam Road and Turner Avenue.

Funding for the first phase will come from the Missouri Department of Transportation's Surface Transportation Program and a capital improvement sales tax approved by Columbia voters in 2005, Columbia Public Works Department spokesman Steven Sapp said.

The second phase of the plan, which has yet to be approved by the council, would create a new road between Bingham and Brandon roads, requiring the demolition of six more houses, and add the right-turn lane on Providence Road from Bingham Road to Stadium.

That final plan, Grasslands Neighborhood Association board member John Ott said,  "is where we ended up" after several years of discussions.

Several ideas have been discussed, including the road through the Phi Kappa Psi property and connecting Brandon Road to Stadium across from Carrie Francke Drive by cutting through another property. Those ideas died, however, because of engineering and traffic concerns, Sapp said.

Fifth Ward City Council candidate Mark Jones said that any number of the tabled plans would have cost less and been more efficient. He has repeatedly voiced his opposition to the current plan, which he views as unnecessary and expensive. He said he has spoken with constituents who agree with him.

“There are folks who definitely believe we could spend the money more wisely,” Jones said. “They think it's misplaced priorities as well. They would rather see it used in other projects.”  

Jones said that the first portion of the project, which would add only stoplights and small upgrades, would do the job just as well for a fraction of the cost. He thinks the money would be better spent by adding lanes on Forum Boulevard to clear up congestion there.

“I'd rather spend that money building on Forum than knocking down homes,” Jones said. 

Bruce Beckett, a longtime Grasslands resident, agreed with Jones that the project is too costly and grandiose for the size of the problem. His son owns a property that will have a new road next to it if the city follows through with the projects.

“Put a light at Burnam Road and forget everything else," Beckett said. “That way you spend a million bucks instead of $6 million.”

Ott said Grasslands residents agreed with Beckett's assessment and would have preferred the simple addition of a stoplight to give easier access to the neighborhood. It was MoDOT and the city that added the right-hand turn lane, which caused the cost of the project to balloon, he said.

"This has been after many years of trying to get some kind of a solution to the problem. But our little problem is not what's being addressed there," Ott said. "What's being addressed there is a city and state issue of moving traffic down Providence Road."


The neighborhood accepted the final project, not as the optimal solution for the residents, but as the only one that would be accepted by both the city and state, Ott said. 

Sapp said both the state and city share equal responsibility for the cost and design of the project. Because Providence Road is a state highway, all city plans had to go through MoDOT, which told city officials that the project could have no negative impact on traffic flow.

When the city saw the buildup caused by the short turn lane onto Stadium, they changed Phase II to make it longer. They also added a median as a safety precaution. Sapp said the final plan met with the approval of all parties involved.

"We took several options to MoDOT, to the University of Missouri and the Grasslands Neighborhood Association, and Phases I and II percolated to the top because everyone liked them," he said. 

Fifth Ward council candidate Susan "Tootie" Burns , who served as neighborhood secretary for the Grasslands Neighborhood Association for a decade before resigning in 2011, also said the current plan is the right one for the city.

Burns added that while the plan might not be perfect, the neighborhood residents voted in October to move forward with it.

"I think that there has been a lot of time spent on this project, and I'm sorry it has become a campaign issue for Mark Jones," Burns said. "I don't think he understands the history and discussion and work that have gone into this project. It's not just about dollars."

The third Fifth Ward candidate, Laura Nauser, has a different view. She said she's more concerned about the source of funding for the project than anything else.

“I want to know where all the money is coming from," she said. "I want MoDOT money. That's what I'm going to be fighting for.”

"I don't know if it's the best plan, but it's certainly the most expensive,” Nauser said.

The Historic Preservation Commission also has weighed in on the debate, protesting the pending destruction of eight homes that its members say have historic value.

"(The project) will be devastating to the Grasslands' neighborhood charm and value,  and to the University, Downtown and the city of Columbia as a whole," the commission wrote in a memo to the City Council.

The council has asked the commission to present its recommendations regarding the second phase of the plan, Sapp said. The commission will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Daniel Boone City Building to hear alternative solutions.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.