City of Laramie officials urged the University of Wyoming to limit — or avoid entirely — any closures of 15th Street during the construction of new dormitories along the west side of the street.
The request came during Monday morning’s meeting of the UW Housing Task Force, a legislative group that’s guiding the construction of at least $300 million new dorms on campus to replace the roughly 2,000 beds the university’s current dorms can house.
In August, the task force recommended UW proceed “immediately” with the demolition of Wyoming Hall in preparation for building new dorms at the northeast corner of campus.
Demolition of Wyoming Hall is likely to commence in early 2020, and initial construction of the first new dorm could begin the same year.
Both Chief of Police Dale Stalder and Fire Chief Dan Johnson told the task force that even temporary closures of 15th could pose a significant public safety concern.
“The police department feels especially passionate that 15th remain open, not just as a corridor indefinitely, but during the construction of new dormitories,” Stalder said.
Despite the pleadings, UW Trustee John McKinley described some temporary “restrictions” of 15th as inevitable.
“We know we’re likely to have temporary types of shutdowns during the construction, whether that’s a day for (utility) tie-ins, or a week for tie-ins and trenching across the street, or three weeks for the delivery of steel,” McKinley said. “The idea that’s unworkable — that seems kind of stretch to me, because we do it all the time.”
The difference, city officials said, is that 15th Street is a “main artery” the city relies on for emergency responses.
The city of Laramie — which has permitting authority for disturbances of its right of way — is unlikely to just be steamrolled over on this issue, city manager Janine Jordan said.
“Lewis Street was requested to be closed for 6 months, and it ended up being a five-year closure,” Jordan said. “I’ll be frank with you, we’re unlikely to approve a closure of 15th Street for more than a few days. In terms of an ambulance service, seconds are lives.”
In test runs of how much a 15th closure would lengthen response times, Stalder said his officers have found that having to drive east to 22nd Street to traverse campus could add as much as seven minutes to LPD’s response times.
Traveling west to Ninth Street could extend a response by as much as eight-and-a-half minutes, he said.
“Ninth Street is a very dangerous corridor for us because the parking is tighter and there aren’t a lot of sight lines,” Stalder said.
Stalder explained that LPD officers work in “beats,” with some officers patrolling neighborhoods north of campus. Others are assigned to neighbors south of campus.
But when back-up is required, beat cops from one side of the city need to drive quickly to the other side.
“My responses are very unpredictable, and that’s why 15th is such an important corridor for us,” Stalder said.
McKinley suggested that either the Legislature or UW itself could pay to hire extra officers that are stationed either on both the north and south sides of campus.
Stalder said that wouldn’t really help the situation, since those extra officers would be constantly on the move — not waiting patiently at each end of 15th.
“The police department isn’t static,” Stalder said. “If I had extra staff, the breakdowns would still occur whether I have four or six or eight (extra officers).”
City officials told the task force that they were hoping to get more clarity Monday on exactly what UW’s closure plans were for the street.
But they didn’t really get much info about how long UW might seek to close the street for at any given time.
“Those sorts of things are going to happen,” McKinley said. “We don’t have the exact scheduling to know when those things are going to happen.”
In the 2019 law that created the financing scheme for the new dorms construction, the Legislature appropriated $300,000 for the city of Laramie to “improve traffic efficiency on Ninth Street between Ivinson Avenue and Flint Street and 22nd Street between Grand Avenue and Willett Drive.”
Some task force members suggested the city should have already moved forward on using that funding to address possible emergency response issues that will be created by the construction.
“I would urge the city to get whatever traffic study and emergency response studies are needed so this isn’t used to delay the construction of new dorms,” McKinley said.
Jordan, however, said that isn’t possible until the city knows what impacts UW intends to create.
“We have not received any indication of where or when the 15h Street traffic might be restricted,” she said. “We don’t want to study things that it wouldn’t be worth spending money on. … Our intention is that once we get direction on where we’re going, we’ll think about the best way to use the $300,000.”
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, chaired Monday’s meeting and expressed sympathy for the city’s position.
“I’m struggling to understand what they would go and study, and I’ve been here for all the meetings,” Rothfuss said.
Ultimately, the task force recommended that UW administrators and the trustees’ facilities contracting committee draft a five-year timeline on the construction outlining the “issues inherent to the new housing.”
In a rather tacit rebuke of the city officials, House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, urged a “can-do spirit” to allow the construction to proceed as soon as possible.