Westfield City Council members agree that enhancing pedestrian safety on the Monon crossing at 161st Street is a priority. What they can’t agree on is how to go about it.
At the Dec. 14 meeting, Public Works Dept. Director Jeremy Lollar provided an update on the construction of a tunnel at 161st Street, a proposed project that could cost up to $5 million but would provide a safer way for Monon pedestrians to cross the busy street. A HAWK System, or high intensity activated crosswalk, also was proposed as a much cheaper alternative at approximately $123,000, but trail users would still have to navigate the busy street. The system is an at-grade crossing for pedestrians but includes a red signal to alert motorists to stop when a pedestrian is crossing.
Then-council President Joe Edwards said the council would return to vote on whether to move forward with the tunnel project or the HAWK system at its Dec. 28 meeting. At that meeting, the council voted 5-2 to construct the HAWK system. Councilors Jake Gilbert and Scott Willis voted no.
Prior to the vote, new council President Mike Johns voiced concern about the city’s financial health.
“It’s highly possible that even without this tunnel, the debt of Westfield may increase 50 percent over the next 18 months,” Johns said. “We know the pandemic will impact our revenue big time over the next 18 months, and how much we don’t know. We do know that this year, just a few months ago, we already approved $5 million in fire and safety, $5 million this coming year for a new fire station, $5 million for a new police station, $6 million in (tax increment financing) for the Old Town downtown project, $7.5 million for (Ind.) 32, and anything over the $15 million being charged to the city, so I suspect at the end of the day, it’s not going to be $7.5 million, but double that.
“We know we need a new parking garage, so $5 million for that. And if we want to have Grand Junction structures built and not just foundations, that’s $13 million.”
Johns said even with $54 million in new debt, the city hasn’t addressed some of what he calls its “biggest capital needs,” such as widening Spring Mill Road and 191st Street.
“We still don’t know the true cost of Grand Park, and is it making money or are we losing money?” Johns said. “At the end of the day, I guess I find it difficult to support $5 million for a tunnel that’s supposed to be needed for safety reasons, but of the 11 pedestrians hit by cars in Westfield in the last three years, only one was struck in this intersection, and that lady actually ran in front of the car.”
Johns said a combination of flashing lights on the trail, speed bumps to remind cyclists to stop, a reduced speed on the roadway, the HAWK system and even hiring a police officer to regularly watch the area were all better suggestions than building the tunnel.
“My inclination is to look for more reasonable ways of spending taxpayers’ money at this point as we try to work our way through all of the financial issues facing our city,” he said.
But other councilors disagreed. Although Gilbert originally favored exploring options such as the HAWK system, he insisted the tunnel was the best option for the intersection, which is within his district.
“I was very neutral on the thought of the tunnel in the beginning. I believed we needed to explore other options, and I was certainly part of leading that charge,” Gilbert said. “But I’ve run that intersection, I’ve biked that intersection, I’ve driven it. I did the same (on the Midland Trail) with the HAWK system in Noblesville. I talked to police in Noblesville and in Westfield, explored other intersections, talked to the city, talked to (Noblesville) councilors, county commissioners, and at the end of the day, I feel all these other alternatives really exhausted themselves.”
Gilbert said while driving on 161st Street, he has been in traffic backed up to the first roundabout past the trail crossing. He said the traffic will only increase when cars must stop to allow residents to cross the trail with the HAWK system.
“It’s only going to get busier and busier, and I believe that I’ve come to the conclusion that it is inevitable we are going to have to build the tunnel,” he said.
Although the Westfield City Council approved the installation of a significantly less expensive HAWK system at the Monon crossing at 161st Street, Mayor Andy Cook has authorized the public works department to continue working with engineers for a proposed tunnel, which is significantly costlier.
The public works department and engineers would produce renderings, proper engineer plans and more, so that the city can determine the cost of a tunnel. An accurate representation of how the tunnel would look will be available in October, and the remaining engineering design process will be complete in mid-2022, which will be followed by the bidding process. The council can either approve or deny funding the tunnel as early as October when it sees the representation.
In the meantime, the HAWK System will be constructed. The public works department doesn’t have an installation timeline. The HAWK system can be moved to other intersections should a tunnel be constructed at 161st Street in the future.
Public Works Dept. Director Jeremy Lollar cautioned the council that roughly half of the $123,000 cost of the system was for construction, so the council would be faced with those costs again if it were to move the system to another intersection.