The suggestion to close 15th Street died during the State Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee meeting Thursday in Cheyenne, brought down by resounding disapproval from the Laramie community.
But Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, who co-chairs the committee, said 15th Street will eventually have to close as UW continues to grow.
“It won’t be the last time this issue comes up,” he said. “It will resurface again and again and again over the years. Hopefully, in your planning, you’ll at least take to heart that we’re doing it for the city of Laramie and the state of Wyoming to make it a more fantastic, more beautiful place to live.”
In March, the Legislature attached a footnote to the university’s budget, directing UW to meet with city officials about vacating or modifying the stretch of 15th Street between Ivinson Avenue and Willett Drive. The stretch in question is a major artery for Laramie — and the only road cutting north-south through campus. It also provides access to both Fraternity and Sorority rows and the Wyoming Union parking lot.
“Frankly, we want more trees, we want more park, we want more grass and less cars driving through the middle of campus,” Nicholas said. “I mean, if you go to CSU, you go to the larger campuses, they don’t have any major arteries that go right through campus because it takes away the campus feel.”
UW and the Laramie City Council — both facing intense criticism for even considering the idea — hosted four public listening sessions, which gathered input from students and others on campus, as well as from Laramie residents.
“What I was trying to get the City Council to consider is that it may not be nuts and it may not be something that is so outlandish to imagine that 15th Street wouldn’t have traffic going up and down it,” UW Vice President for Governmental and Community Affairs Chris Boswell told the committee. “So, we had public meetings, and everybody hated the idea.”
Community input was nearly unanimously negative, with common complaints being such a closure would push traffic onto other streets less capable of handling the flow and would fail in its stated goal of unifying campus. Students and others argued the size of campus, rather than 15th Street, was responsible for the east-west division of campus.
Nicholas said it was unfortunate no one from the Legislature was present during the listening sessions to advocate a “vision for the future.”
“On the other hand, to throw this at Laramie and the community in a footnote probably is a little bit upsetting and offensive and not the best way to do it,” he said. “But at least it brings it to question and makes people think about it.”
UW compiled a report for the Joint Appropriations Committee detailing these public comments, as well as the history of traffic accidents involving pedestrians on the relevant stretch of road.
The report also discusses alternative plans, which could improve pedestrian safety — such as the construction of an overpass or underpass — and the economic hardship these alternatives or a total closure would have on the city of Laramie.
“We realize that nothing’s going to happen in the near future,” Nicholas said. “And if it does happen, we in the state of Wyoming will have to pay for it, we’ll have to pay whatever it takes to get it done.”
Laramie Mayor Andi Summerville and Boswell voiced support for the idea of closing 15th Street in principle but cautioned public perception would be slow to shift and more intense consideration of the effects such a plan would have was necessary.
“We know that, anecdotally, that crossing at 15th and Ivinson is probably the busiest pedestrian crossing in the state,” said Summerville, who attended the committee meeting. “And despite the fact that we don’t have many traffic accidents with pedestrian injuries right now that we can show, we certainly want to enhance that experience, we want to enhance pedestrian safety.”
UW’s report did not include price estimates for any of the possible alterations it discussed, Boswell said.
“It was the university’s belief that if there were to be a vacation, and if there were to be real planning that goes into a possible vacation and debating whether or not to vacate the street, it needs far more significant study than was offered in the few months after the session and before Nov. 1,” he said.
Nicholas said the footnote was meant to get people thinking about the future of the UW campus in Laramie 50 or 100 years hence.
“From the 20,000 foot view, looking down on that campus, it’s going to have maybe 25,000 students on it and the housing project is going to go all the way up to the hospital, it’s going to expand past and around the cemetery,” he said.
As that expansion happens, changes to Laramie — and changes to the way people think about campus — will be necessary, Nicholas said.
“You’re going to lose Lewis (and) lose the next street,” he said. “Someday, that’s going to happen. And so at some point, would it be better for the campus and better for the state to have a different view of 15th street from what’s there now?”