A legislative measure that would start the nine-figure overhaul of the University of Wyoming’s dormitories contains a subsection that’s renewed concerns about a potential closure of 15th Street after the bill was posted Monday to the Legislature’s website.
House Bill 293 would require UW to issue revenue bonds to fund the construction, but it would also appropriate $3.5 million “to provide grants to 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 to mitigate any potential impacts created by the restricted access to 15th Street from Ivinson Avenue to Lewis Street necessitated by the construction and implementation of the University of Wyoming student housing project.”
The bill instructs the State Loan and Investment Board to release funding to the city “upon submittal of a proposal and cost estimates by the city for traffic efficiency improvements under this subsection.”
Wyoming House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, is the sponsor of the bill and has previously shown strong interest in closing 15th Street in certain areas.
If the road we closed, north-south traffic from Grand Avenue would be blocked for more than a mile.
When the House Appropriations committee unanimously voted Wednesday to advance the bill, UW trustee John McKinley said fears that the bill is attempting to close 15th Street is the result of “misinformation.”
“If you look closely at the bill, it does not deal with 15th Street at all,” he said.
The purpose of providing grants to the city, he said, are to be “good neighbors.”
“When we build 2,000 replacement beds, there’s going to be impacts on campus,” he said. “We can’t avoid the impacts, but we can lessen them. We’re not closing down 15th Street, but it is going to be impacted.”
Laramie city manager Janine Jordan noted the language of the bill indicates otherwise.
The bill explicitly outlines areas UW is allowed to build dorms on. The perimeter outlined in the bill includes the city’s 15th Street right-of-way. The language of the bill suggests UW could construct dorms on the current location of 15th Street from Bradley Street to Sorority Row.
“If the intention is not to encumber or disrupt 15th Street, I would suggest we could (change) the language in the bill,” Jordan said. “That would assuage a lot of concerns in my community.”
She also said the bill should be revised to clarify how long the city’s right-of-way would be affected.
When the House Appropriations Committee heard testimony on the bill Wednesday, the review began after 9 p.m., well after most legislators had departed for the night and the Jonah Business Center began to quiet.
Jordan and fire chief Dan Johnson stayed in Cheyenne past 10 p.m. to testify.
After McKinley first tried to alleviate concerns about 15th Street, Jordan expressed relief that the trustees have taken a permanent closure “off the table.”
McKinley was quick to clarify.
“That’s not what I said,” he said. “Fifteentth Street is an issue that the city and UW should work on. It’s just not in the bill.”
Johnson said he’s concerned that a permanent closure of 15th Street would have significant impacts on emergency response.
Jordan suggested a number of amendments, including revisions for how the grants to “improve traffic efficiency” should be used.
“It’s unclear to us what we should be doing with that money, and in fact, we do not have plans for how we would use that money to mitigate traffic impacts,” she said.
The SLIB money should first be used to complete a traffic study of the area, she said.
Construction of the project is set to be overseen by an advisory task force. That committee met numerous times throughout the middle of 2018.
Under the bill draft, however, the membership of the committee would shrink to include only legislators, UW trustees and appointees of UW President Laurie Nichols.
Jordan said the committee should also include herself, Laramie’s mayor, and another community member appointed by City Council.
Laramie Mayor Joe Shumway said he’s supportive of Jordan’s proposed amendments and expects state Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, and Sen. Glenn Moniz, R-Laramie, to fight for the amendments to be added into the bill.
Shumway he doesn’t think there’s “any appetite” among council-members or staff to close the street.
“Any closure of 15th is absolutely unacceptable,” he said. “If there is any temporary closure, it has to be because there are no other options that are reasonable.”
The 2017 supplemental budget bill included a footnote requiring UW to meet with city council about the “need for vacating 15th Street between East Willett Drive and East Ivinson (Avenue) to unify the campus and protect pedestrian traffic.”
In response, UW and the city hosted four “listening sessions” to solicit public opinion. Residents were overwhelmingly opposed to the proposal.
Some fear the dorms bill could be a precursor to legislators coercing the city to vacate the street.
Such action would not be unprecedented.
When construction on the Enzi STEM building was first planned, a temporary closure of Lewis Street was widely expected. UW later called for a permanent closure when they completed engineering work.
In 2011, the Legislature’s budget bill gave $50 million for the future construction of the Enzi STEM building. However, the bill also prevented any construction to take place until “after the city of Laramie has resolved to vacate Lewis street between ninth and fourteenth streets.”
After years of uncertainty on Lewis Street’s future, the city vacated the road in 2014 without receiving an upfront payment.
“This university continues to say ‘we want the city to make concessions and we’re not going to pay for them.’” Shumway said. “I don’t want to go through this again where we think it’s temporary and then becomes permanent. I want to be clear up front that that’s not on the table. They want to have a campus that’s closed off from the community. I don’t even think that’s logical.”