Winslow Way project leaps forward

With over $1 million approved for the Winslow Way this week, supporters say the reconstruction project has moved beyond debate and into the realm of action.

But some critics say the debate has only begun.

My coverage of Wednesday’s six hour (!) City Council meeting is below…

The City Council approved the first major spending item for the Winslow Way reconstruction project during a long and contentious meeting Wednesday night.

Passing by a narrow margin, the approved $1.2-million consulting contract will put Atlanta-based Heery International to work this month managing the utility repair and road reconstruction project.

Heery’s immediate tasks include final project planning and engineering. The work on Winslow’s main commercial thoroughfare will go out to bid in the fall. Construction is set to begin in the spring of 2010.

The council’s 4-3 vote was reflected in a sharply divided crowd packing City Hall.

Critics said the project placed an unfair financial burden on residential utility ratepayers while handing most of the benefits to a few commercial property owners.

Winslow resident Virginia Paul, who depends on Social Security payments, said expected utility rate increases will be difficult for her to work into her budget.

“I disagree that the 2,200 (ratepayers) should bear the extra cost,” she said.

South island resident Stephanie Ross urged the council to start the process over.

“Take time to do it again,” she said. “Let’s do it right for the community.”

Supporters said further delays could imperil about $7 million in government grants and private donations dedicated to the $12 million project. With leaking sewer lines, low-capacity water pipes, narrow sidewalks and nearly nonexistent stormwater treatment infrastructure, the Winslow Way fix is long overdue, supporters said.

“This is our front room,” said resident Ed Kushner, referring to the street’s function as the island’s commercial and social center. “We’re all committed to this place, and this place needs help.”

Several Winslow business and property owners turned out to speak in favor of the project after having remained silent during months of debate at City Hall.

Noting the burden on ratepayers, Bainbridge Island Chamber of Commerce President Rodney Bauch said business owners will also bear the project’s brunt.

“We’re the ones who will pay for it by the disruption it will cause,” he said, noting that some customers may avoid downtown during the reconstruction. “We will lose revenue, but we know in the end it’s the right thing to do.”

Barbara Tolliver, co-owner of the Traveler store, said she was “profoundly disillusioned” that a “vocal minority” had worked so hard to derail the project.

“This (project) will strengthen our community’s economic and social vitality and sustainability,” she said.

Winslow Way property owner Bruce Weiland drew applause when he attacked the notion that the project is “part of a conspiracy” to allow taller, bigger and newer buildings downtown. He also contested the idea that project is part of the Winslow Tomorrow initiative, which has lately been characterized by some as a fruitless and costly planning effort.

“For those who are vehemently against Winslow Way: Get over it,” he said. “This isn’t about Winslow Tomorrow. It’s about fixing a broken street.”

Concerns about the costs to ratepayers dominated the council’s discussion.

The six-hour meeting stretched past midnight, with some council members bickering with each other and one member tearing up.

“For the ratepayers, the cost is unknown,” said Councilman Bill Knobloch, who took city staff to task for not providing clear estimates on how much the project may cost utility ratepayers.

Project manager Chris Wierzbicki clarified that about $2.5 million of the project’s total funding would come from utility bonds. The bond could result in a 6 percent increase on sewer bills in 2011, he said.

Councilwoman Kim Brackett, who joined Knobloch and Debbie Vancil in opposing the contract, suggested the city negotiate a cheaper deal with Heery, put the project’s remaining funding up for voter-approved bond and ask state and federal grantors to hold their money until a later time.

Councilwoman Hilary Franz said grantors would likely withdraw funding and hand it to other applicants if the city asked to delay acceptance. She also noted that the utility fixes will result in lower costs for ratepayers over time.

With the Winslow Way fix now moving ahead at a rapid rate, several community and council members asked that supporters and opponents ease the ill will and distrust that has formed over the project.

“There are many hurdles ahead,” Franz said. “It’s not going to help if the people behind this dais or in the community are divided.”