As Lincoln officials prepare to unseal bids for construction of the 14th Street, Old Cheney Road and Warlick Boulevard project Friday, a new group is seeking signatures on a petition to put the controversial elevated roundabout's fate to a vote next spring.
"This is the ability for the people to take control over better decisions for our city," said Peter Katt, a critic of the project and a local real estate developer leading the group Sensible Streets for Lincoln.
Katt said he believes the vote by the City Council on an unsuccessful effort in early November to delay the project was political.
In recent weeks, he said he's heard from many people in Lincoln who want the delay.
Katt and the group are seeking a ballot initiative to enact a city ordinance that puts a two-year moratorium on spending and construction of the project after completion of the South Beltway. The measure wouldn't block emergency repairs or routine road maintenance.
Though he was the group's only formal member as of Monday, other campaign supporters were expected to announce their endorsement later this week, he said.
Bids for construction of the project are due Dec. 10, and Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said Monday afternoon her staff plans to follow the existing process to assess the bids and decide whether to move forward with construction.
The project has had extensive public input, she said, including a two-hour hearing on the unsuccessful proposal to delay the seven-intersection transformation estimated to cost $36 million.
City officials see the project as a way to ease traffic congestion and improve safety in a growing area of town, and project supporters argue the delay only drives up the cost of improvements that need to be made anyway.
The project's elevated roundabout over a T-intersection has been the focus of public attention and scorn since then-Mayor Chris Beutler selected it in July 2015 following a design competition.
"We've heard from a significant number of people questioning why the city is spending so much money on a project with an untested design, the necessity for which is not yet known," Katt said.
"Wherever the bids come back on Friday, this project should still be delayed."
Katt and other group supporters, such as Debby Brehm and Bob Bennie, whose wealth management firm is just east of the intersection, held a news conference at Bennie's office Monday.
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They had supported the proposal by Councilman Richard Meginnis to delay the project over concerns about its construction occurring as state crews build the South Beltway.
Meginnis' measure lost on a 4-3 vote. Four Democrats voted down the ordinance.
Democratic Councilman James Michael Bowers joined Meginnis and Councilman Roy Christensen, both Republicans, in voting for it.
Council Chair Jane Raybould, who supports the project and whose district includes the intersections, called the petition drive disappointing.
"(I'm) hoping those collecting signatures are providing accurate facts on this project to the folks that they get to sign," Raybould said.
Meginnis said he wasn't surprised to learn about the petition drive, but he declined to comment on the effort Monday because he hadn't had time to review it.
Katt's group believes it will need about 8,500 signatures from Lincoln voters to get the issue on the ballot. It would like to turn in signatures by the end of January, which would allow the issue to be on the May 12 primary ballot if the signatures are confirmed.
Their deadline to have City Council approval to be on the ballot is March 2, he said.
Katt feels the city hasn't fully disclosed the project costs. He estimates the overall cost could exceed $50 million, including buying additional right-of-way, relocating businesses that are being displaced and utility relocation.
But interim Transportation and Utilities Director Tom Casady said the city's $36.45 million estimate includes all the city's costs to prepare for and build the improvements, including buying right-of-way and getting easements from businesses in the area.
That doesn't include the cost for private utility companies to move their lines or for Lincoln Electric System to move its underground power lines, but the cost of moving the city's water, wastewater and sanitary sewer facilities are included, he said.
"This is a costly response to a problem we don't even know will exist after the South Beltway is completed," Katt said.
City engineering consultants project the intersection's daily traffic would rise from 39,000 drivers now to 59,000 by 2045 with or without the South Beltway's construction.
Katt said he has already contributed money to the petition effort and plans to raise additional funds that would support the ballot campaign. He expects it would be a $50,000 effort.
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