They called it a legacy decision, a historic vote that would determine whether residents and businesses move to the struggling city. But whether West St. Paul officials were on the right side of history when they voted to move forward as planned with the overhaul of South Robert Street depends on who you ask.
The City Council unanimously decided Monday to rebid the massive roadway project as intended, including adding medians and repairing streets, watermains and sewer infrastructure.
The decision followed an hour and a half of community questions. Business owners are wary of road closures and increased taxes. Residents said they avoid the dangerous street, where crashes are common.
The variety of small businesses available along Robert Street attracted Bryan Gerber and his wife to the city, he told the council. But that has changed.
“After living here for three years, I don’t shop in West St. Paul. I don’t shop on Robert Street. I avoid it at all costs,” Gerber said. “I’ve never seen so many accidents.”
In hopes of repairing that reputation, officials embarked on a years-long, $32.5 million project to improve the safety and look of the state highway.
City Council members said they wished they did not have to shoulder so much of the cost, which will force property taxes up. But the state isn’t offering to help as much as the city would like.
In October, West St. Paul received bids for phase one of the project, which includes the bulk of the large-scale road and infrastructure repairs, along with the addition of new traffic signals and street lighting. The city got two bids. The lowest was $7.8 million more than anticipated.
On Monday, the city’s consultant said rebidding in January or February would result in more bids that are closer to the $20.7 million first-phase price tag they projected.
Council members considered altering some of the work to make it cheaper, but kept returning to the idea that they want the project “done right.”
The city did not have a clear response to what would happen if the next round of bids came in over budget. By the time the city receives the bids and has to make such decisions, there will be a new mayor and City Council member.
Mayor-elect Dave Meisinger, who decried the proposed project and campaigned against it, unseated incumbent John Zanmiller, who has fought for the reconstruction.
During this week’s meeting, Zanmiller responded to residents’ questions and tried to stress the importance of the project. He said the city will do all it can to aid impacted businesses.
“There is going to be some discomfort,” he said. “I don’t mean to sound trite. Discomfort is probable. Misery is optional. We’re going to have to muddle through this. This is progress.”
One of the pillars of the project was ensuring access to businesses during construction, Zanmiller said. City staff told the dozens of people who turned out to Monday’s meeting that they will have extra signage to make sure the public knows restaurants and companies along South Robert Street are still operating, and the city will add a liaison during construction to address business owners’ concerns.
Many of their fears are related to phase two of the project. That is when the city will add landscaping, including sidewalks and trees spaced every 50 feet.
Planting trees so close together will block customers’ view of their signs, business owners said. The addition and maintenance of trees will increase the project’s cost, taxpayers said.
“It is not a park,” resident Jim Probst said. “Robert Street is a place of commerce. Make sure that it’s treated that way, and we appreciate that there are people looking for businesses and need to see their signage.”
The community can work out that concern and scale back trees when it reaches that point, Council Member Dave Napier said. But he said the city needs to continue the project.
“I think that the city of West St. Paul is going to be a better place with Robert Street redeveloped,” Napier said. “I want something that we can be proud of, and that’s going to last.”