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Council hears forensic engineering proposal

When they meet on May 11, members of the Hastings City Council will act on a forensic engineering contract proposal for nearly $100,000 to get a more precise estimate for costs associated with the 16th Street viaduct.

Forensic engineer Anthony Siahpush with Engineering Specialists Inc. of Omaha discussed the forensic engineering examination process with council members during their work session on Monday.

The agreement with ESI includes a Condition Assessment and Forensic Analysis at a cost of $53,800, plus an optional examination using X-ray and/or ground-penetrating radar for possible confirmation of the extent of corrosion estimated to cost $13,971 per pier.

Siahpush recommended doing the condition assessment, plus an instrument examination testing for three of the nine piers — the one in worst condition, the one in best condition, and one at random.

“That should give you guys a very good view of the exact condition of the bridge, plus it will give us a better view of what scope to do for remediation, restoration or replacement,” he said.

Council members voted on March 9 — after a strong response from petitioners — to rescind their resolution to demolish the 16th Street viaduct and place the repair option for the 85-year-old structure on the November ballot.

According to costs separately obtained by both Siahpush and an engineer related to one of the petitioners, the Union Pacific Railroad will charge $1 million per day that work occurs on the viaduct over the railroad.

“That $1 million a day, I cannot really say at this point if it is an actual, real hard dollar number or if it is something that it looks like it has been brought up to prevent demolition of the bridge,” Siahpush said.

ESI will present the more exact estimate in time to have “not to exceed” ballot language submitted to the county clerk by Sept. 1, which is the deadline to have it added to the November general election ballot.

Siahpush said the initial assessment would take 4 ½ to 5 weeks and testing another three weeks, for eight weeks total. ESI could be ready to go in late May or early June.

Council members voted 6-2 during their final meeting of 2019 to approve the “tear-down” option of a resolution that also included an extensive repair option; an option for a new bridge with a shorter span; and an option for constructing a new viaduct at a different alignment. The tear-down option was the cheapest provided by engineering firm Olsson, estimated to cost $1,464,140.

The extensive repair option is estimated to cost $3,095,120 and would extend the life of the existing structure 25-30 years.

The viaduct has been closed to traffic since the end of May 2019 based on an engineering assessment that highlighted severe deterioration.

City Administrator Dave Ptak said bringing in a forensic engineering firm is meant to alleviate concerns about contingencies within the Olsson estimates.

“This is services not to demolish or to do anything other than figure out the true condition of the viaduct,” he said. “I think if we’re going to have a vote on this, we won’t want to overstate or understate what the costs might be.”

He said it is not unlike going to the doctor to figure out what’s wrong, so the physician can decide what to prescribe.

“Before we can fix the viaduct we’d better find out what’s wrong with it,” Ptak said. “We’ll be in a better position to know what it’s actually going to take to fix it.”

While there was an agreement among council members during Monday’s work session to bring the ESI contract to a vote on May 11, there was some hesitancy to take on more engineering assessment costs.

Councilman Chuck Rosenberg didn’t want to duplicate the same documentations from Olsson.

Rosenberg, who was one of two council members who voted against demolishing the viaduct, said given the current financial climate he is now not positive the repair option will pass in November. The city could be spending a lot of money for an assessment he said may not be necessary.

“Right now, with money tight, I’m really leery about spending this kind of money for anything,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s a traffic study or anything, we need to watch our expenses very carefully.”

Councilwoman Ginny Skutnik said the city has a responsibility to provide as much information as possible to the public about the condition of and costs associated with the viaduct.

Rosenberg said from the feedback he received this isn’t what the petitioners would like.

“I’d just as soon save the money,” he said. “If this doesn’t pass then we would proceed to hire someone to do the assessment for demolition. It would be a lot cheaper in the long run.”

Mayor Corey Stutte said in conversations he’s had with petitioners they have wanted a second engineering opinion.

The forensic engineering examination also is important to provide an accurate timeline for years the structure could remain in service.

“There are some things to be considered that the forensics would help us with and it would help provide a much more honest assessment on where we’re at,” Stutte said.

Pandemic measures mean less highway traffic

Sam Bhakta, front desk manager of Hastings Express Inn, said the town of Hastings has been quieter than ever.

Just down the road, U.S. Highway 281 has seen a decrease in the average number of cars passing in a day. In February, the average was 3,210. In March, it was 2,938, an 8.5% decrease.

“I can see less cars on the road than before and less people walking on the sidewalk, and it’s been very less people around,” Bhakta said.

Across Nebraska, the state Department of Transportation has more than 60 automated traffic counting stations on county roads, highways and interstates, counting each car that goes by, every hour, every day, all year long. The stations stretch from the state line on I-680 at the Mormon Bridge in Omaha (down 13% in March) to the state line on I-80 at the Pine Bluffs interchange in Kimball County (up 3.5%).

A Nebraska News Service analysis of individual traffic station data gives the first local view of what impact the coronavirus is having on the state’s roadways. The state takes the daily count of cars, then averages them together to create a monthly count. Of the 62 counting stations statewide, 51 of them reported lower traffic volumes in March versus February.

That ranges from the 33,000 cars per day drop in March at 42nd Street on I-80 in Omaha, where 143,000 cars a day passed by last month to the 5-car daily average drop on a county road north of Chappell in Deuel County, where 64 cars a day on average drove by.

So while March gives the first look at local traffic, it’s a partial look. State and local authorities started ordering shutdowns mid-month in some places, later in others. Normal traffic levels were averaged in with below normal levels to get the monthly amount.

The state has more recent traffic summaries that hint that traffic is down even more in April. Last week, Interstate 80 west of Lincoln to the Wyoming state line was down 26% from previous years. Rural highways in the state are down 14%. Streets in Lincoln and Omaha are down 27% from the past. But those are wide summaries covering hundreds of miles of roadways.

Closer to the spot, the trends become more personal.

As the highway heads north for St. Paul, traffic also has decreased.

Donna Nielsen, the owner of Bel Air Motel outside of St. Paul, said COVID-19 has made the hospitality business difficult.

The motel sits next to U.S. 281. In February, an average of 5,098 cars drove by every day, according to the Nebraska Department of Transportation. In March, the first month impacted by statewide coronavirus shutdowns, that same spot averaged 4,416 cars a day, a 13% drop.

“It’s slowed down some,” Nielsen said. “The roads aren’t as busy.”

Bsakta said business at the Hastings motel has been slow, and any guests are there to stay long term.

“It’s been slow, and people are not coming over here,” she said. “Some people are living in the motel for 4 or 5 months.”

Other traffic counting stations included in the Nebraska News Service analysis included U.S. Highway 81 south of Geneva. In February, the section roadway saw 5,022 vehicles while in March the number was down to 4,873, a decrease of 3%.

Laura Weaver and her husband have owned Weaver Repair for 20 years and have seen an obvious decrease in the traffic along the highway south of Geneva.

“On the weekends when we’re doing work stuff or personal stuff, you notice less vehicles and a lot more trucks,” Weaver said.

Reporters John Grinvalds, Elsie Stormberg and Kaitlynn Johnson contributed to this report.

Give Hastings Day aligns with global generosity movement

Organizers gearing up for the final push in this year’s Give Hastings Day, a celebration of local generosity, took time on Monday to reflect on the local campaign’s ties to a global movement.

The Hastings Community Foundation, which plays host to Give Hastings Day, already is accepting donations on behalf of 91 area nonprofit organizations. The books on this year’s seventh annual Give Hastings Day close at 11:59 p.m. on Thursday — the actual designated “day.”

Meanwhile, however, HCF issued a news release paying tribute to the ninth annual GivingTuesday, which is Tuesday, May 5. GivingTuesday is described as “the global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world.”

To join in the global celebration, the Hastings Community Foundation encourages donors to make their gifts now at www.givehastings.org.

“GivingTuesday is focused on how generosity is at the heart of the society we build together, unlocking dignity and opportunity,” said Dan Peters, HCF executive director. “Those are also some of the outcomes of Give Hastings Day. By participating in GivingTuesday and Give Hastings Day, donors make services, opportunities and innovation possible right here in Hastings and throughout Adams County.”

araun / Andy Raun/Tribune  

A Give Hastings Day yard sign stands along South Hastings Avenue Monday, May 4, 2020.

GivingTuesday was founded in 2012 by New York’s 92nd Street Y in partnership with the United Nations Foundation.

The events of the past few months, with the onset of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, pandemic, seem to have shone a brighter spotlight on the importance of people helping people in local communities.

“I appreciate that giving, calibrating and celebrating are at the heart of GivingTuesday because those align so much with Give Hastings Day,” Peters said in the foundation news release. “Give Hastings Day is made possible by the 91 nonprofit organizations calibrating to create a meaningful event for our donors and our community. Even at this difficult time, we’ll make sure the celebration piece will be there this year, too. That remains an important piece of the Give Hastings Day experience.”

The Give Hastings Day online donation portal opened on April 20 — early this year in view of the disruption and hardships being caused by COVID-19.

Gifts can be made online at givehastings.org or by check, payable to the HCF, which can be delivered to the secure drop-off at the HCF office, 800 W. Third St., Suite 232.

araun / Andy Raun/Tribune  

A Give Hastings Day sign stands along South Hastings Avenue Monday.

From 2014-19, a total of more than $1.9 million has been raised through the Give Hastings Day effort for area nonprofit organizations. “Leaderboard” information, about how much money is being raised for the various organizations, is being held secret until Thursday.

For more information visit www.givehastings.org or www.givingtuesday.org.

Adams County's fifth COVID-19 death announced

A man in his 60s has become the fifth Adams County resident to die in connection with the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, the South Heartland District Health Department reported Monday night.

The victim had been hospitalized.

“I am sad to report a fifth COVID-19 related death in Adams County,” said Michele Bever, SHDHD executive director, in a health department news release. “As we send condolences to the family and hold them in our thoughts, we urge community members to continue to practice social distancing and prevention to help slow the spread of this disease.”

In addition, Bever announced five new laboratory-confirmed cases in the four-county South Heartland health district on Monday, bringing the total number of cases confirmed in the district to date to 221 — 203 in Adams County, 13 in Clay County, five in Webster County, and zero in Nuckolls County. Of that number, 107 were known to have recovered as of May 1.

The new cases announced on Monday include two in Clay County — a man in his 30s and a woman in her 30s — and three in Adams County, including a woman in her 30s, a man in his 50s and a man in his 60s.

In Monday’s news release, Bever said the health department has started tracking the positivity rate (percentage of tests that are positive), which is calculated by dividing the number of positive test results each week by the total number of test results each week.

“We are monitoring the weekly trend, watching for a decline in this rate over time,” she said. “This will help us see how well our social distancing and prevention actions are working at reducing the spread and reducing the rate of new cases.”

“The weekly positivity rate for April 5-11 was 25%, it was 19% the next week, then 18%, and it was 15% this past week,” Bever said. “But the current decline in the positivity rate is due, in part, to less restrictive testing and increased capacity for testing, not necessarily due to a decline in disease levels in our counties. We still need to continue to practice social distancing and prevention to drive this rate into the single digits.”

Bever also reminded residents who are ill or have any symptoms consistent with coronavirus disease to stay home from work and to isolate at home to avoid spreading the illness to others.

“People may have very mild or no symptoms at all, but the virus can spread easily through close, person-to-person contact at work or at gatherings,” she said. “This often leads to new cases of COVID-19.”

In the neighboring Central Health District, which includes Hall, Hamilton and Merrick counties and has been hit hard by the virus, health department officials announced 140 new confirmed COVID-19 cases on Monday. As of 4 p.m., the district’s total number of confirmed cases to date is 1,310, with 1,247 in Hall County, 50 in Hamilton County and 13 in Merrick County.

The Central district has recorded a total of 37 deaths related to COVID-19: 28 in Hall County, nine in Hamilton County and zero in Merrick County.

As of Monday evening, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services was reporting a cumulative statewide total of 6,083 positive COVID-19 cases confirmed to date. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment reported a statewide tally of 5,245 positive cases as of Monday morning.

Although Nebraska relaxed some of its social-distancing restrictions Monday in the Omaha area and more than half of the state’s counties, Gov. Pete Ricketts implored people who are still living in more heavily regulated areas to stay put.

Ricketts asked residents in hard-hit areas, such as Grand Island and Dakota City, not to venture away from their regions out of concern that they might spread the coronavirus. Unlike many other states, Ricketts has imposed public safety restrictions in Nebraska on a regional basis, by local public health district. The rules are designed to keep the virus from spreading so fast that it overwhelms the state’s hospitals.