Mill Creek City Council Meeting 5/14/19

The majority of the time at the May 14th City Council meeting was spent on two very complicated and difficult decisions: Creating a safer Mid-Block crossing and whether to accept a contract bid for making repairs to our surface water infrastructure. Both situations involve big money, and significant risk.

On SR 96/132nd Street, west of 35th, there is a point where there have been multiple incidents of cars striking people. The reason for this is a residential area on one side, and commercial on the other, where it would require several hundred yards of walking to reach an established crosswalk. Therefore, it has become common practice, one most people admit they would be prone to, to cross mid-block. Generally, one-lane is crossed at a time, with a stop at the median.

Unfortunately, we learned in Audience Communication that the median is far from safe. A young woman and her family came and shared their personal story of tragedy. The teen had been standing in the median when a truck came on to it, knocked her off, where she was then hit by another car. Her grandfather spoke, describing the problem with the lack of official crosswalk, and read his granddaughter’s account of her experience. The chamber fell absolutely silent as her mother spoke about the experience of learning that her child had been struck.

The family acknowledged how lucky they had been that she survived, and offered a plea on behalf of those who might not be, in the future. It was so meaningful to have the human face of the problem represented in the audience during subsequent discussion, a truly laudable example of civic involvement.

Gina Hortillosa, Director of Public Works & Development Services, supported by Chief of Police Greg Elwin, led a Study Session on possible solutions, as well as a State grant that may be available to implement them. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a big fan of Gina’s presentations. She is always through, clear, and give the impression that knowing as much as she does about civil engineering is pretty fun. I’d like to look into inviting groups of girls interested in STEM careers to a meeting where she will speak, including allowing them to ask a few questions. (It is permitted, but not required, to take questions from the audience during Study Sessions.)

Directly from my notes: “There are many possible solutions, some are cheap and bad, some are expensive and bad.” However, there are some with potential, that are also eligible for a State grant for $750,000. (That number is a little misleading, as it includes $75,000 in matching funds that the City is required to provide. Still, it’s getting a $675,000 contributions for $75k.)

Director Hortillosa has been speaking with the Washington State Department of Transportation about receiving grant funding to install a HAWK beacon, officially known as a Pedestrian Hybrid Beacon (PHB). This traffic control system is generally used in areas where a traditional traffic light is unnecessary, with an appropriate amount of traffic/pedestrian volume, and standards for use are met in this location. WSDOT is enthusiastic for this improvement, and grant funding is all but assured.

One issue with the HAWK system is that it can cause driver confusion, as its signals are not necessarily consistent with the rest of a given area’s traffic code. However, a similar-but-different system would also be eligible for the grant, if it proves to be the better solution.

A few concerns were raised by the Council. Several members expressed frustration that the County is unwilling to share the costs, but that avenue has been explored and proven fruitless. Similarly, determining the City’s options if the project cost is more that $750,000 was a popular concern. Pam Pruitt was firmly of the belief that this project is not a good solution to the problem, leading to an eventual vote of 6-1 in favor of moving forward with acquiring the grant.

Imagine that you had experienced a sudden, and critical, failure in your home’s plumbing system. After dealing with that phenomenal expense, further investigation reveals that your pipes will require extensive repairs to avoid the same happening in the future. You make some plans, get an estimate, establish a line of credit, and then look for bidders on the job. Your lowest bid comes back, and it’s 80% higher than the estimate. The clock is ticking, what do you do? This was, essentially, the situation the Council faced on moving forward to fix the F grade (indicates a severe issue) repairs on the City’s pipes that are 18” and larger.

A lack of planning towards maintaining the surface water infrastructure has led to the City’s imminent acceptance of 2.8 million dollars in bond funds, intended to fully address the issue over the next decade. This contract creating 100s of thousands of unanticipated expenses will impact the execution of the plan going forward, and it is unknown why the estimate and the bids were so far apart. One possible explanation is the time of year the project was bid, an issue that also came up regarding construction of Explorer Park. However, it seems that the biggest factor is that, they got it wrong, because they got it wrong.

Councilmembers made it clear that they do not want estimates from that firm in the future. Otherwise, it was acknowledged that the situation “is what it is,” a technical term in politics for when you are about to vote to accept the things you cannot change. Given that, there is no evidence that a delay would produce a lower bid, but it would increase the risk of additional emergencies (some portions of pipe are mostly made of dirt and luck), the Council voted 6-0 to enact the contract. Mike Todd abstained, on grounds of inadequate information.

It was much easier, more fun, and less time consuming for the Council to approve a previously budgeted expansion of the Art and Beautification Board’s Utility Box Project. A new set of colorful wraps for dull metal boxes will be based on art that was submitted by Jackson High School students, then selected by the community when displayed at an Art Walk. The plan was unanimously approved by the Council, and will go on to seek approval from WSDOT, who own the relevant property.