Members of Hastings Citizens with a Voice disagree with the mayor’s assessment that they have been propagating disinformation in their efforts related to the 16th Street viaduct.
During the Hastings City Council meeting on Oct. 26, Mayor Corey Stutte answered claims made in an advertisement from Hastings Citizens with a Voice that ran in the Hastings Tribune on Oct. 22, labeling some of the claims “untruths.”
But people involved with the group say they don’t see anything wrong with the information.
“We don’t see any untruths,” said Willis Hunt of Hastings, a former Hastings city engineer and city councilman who is running for the council again this year, seeking a seat representing Ward 3.
The group claims there is a “Master Plan” to demolish the 85-year-old 16th Street viaduct and build a new overpass closer to Eastside Boulevard.
Stutte said there is no such plan.
City Administrator Dave Ptak said that would not be an option under the current ballot measure, which Hastings voters are rendering judgment on in this year’s general election.
While there is no evidence any master plan exists, Hunt pointed out that building a new overpass closer to Eastside Boulevard was one of four options presented in a November 2019 report from Olsson Associates.
But the Hastings City Council didn’t seem to consider that option, instead voting during its final meeting of 2019 for the least expensive option — to demolish the viaduct for about $1.46 million.
The viaduct was closed to traffic at the end of May 2019 after an engineering assessment highlighted severe structural deterioration.
Following the December 2019 council vote to raze the structure, a group of Hastings residents including Paul Dietze, Alton Jackson and Norm Sheets attempted to reverse the council’s decision by organizing a referendum petition drive. The group favored the extensive repair option, estimated to cost $3.1 million and possibly extend the life of the existing structure 25-30 years.
Roger Coffman of Hastings said one of the issues is with the council’s frequent decision to suspend the rules requiring three readings of a resolution before it is enacted. While the council is allowed to suspend the rules, he said the additional readings help provide transparency to the public and gives people more chances to speak out about council decisions.
“We need to watch the suspension of those three readings,” said Coffman, who served on the council in the 1990s.
The petitioners collected about 2,700 signatures for the petition, and the council rescinded its decision, agreeing to put the issue on the November ballot.
Since the repair estimate was based on a visual condition assessment of the viaduct by Olsson, Ptak said the city needed more details before putting potential bond amounts before voters.
Ptak said Olsson suggested two firms to conduct a forensic investigation of the viaduct: Engineering Specialists Inc. (ESI) of Omaha and another in Denver. Ptak said the city opted to save money and hire the in-state firm.
Hastings Citizens with a Voice claimed in its ad that ESI was brought in because repairing the viaduct “did not fit with the Master Plan.”
The report from ESI consisted of 260 pages of information and justifications that a repair wasn’t feasible due to the condition of the viaduct. Highlighting additional trouble spots, the ESI estimate for the project was about $7.5 million, which didn’t include costs associated with the Union Pacific Railroad.
(The 16th Street viaduct, which has a curve built into it, carried vehicle traffic over the UP main line in north central Hastings, connecting Osborne Drive East and West 16th Street.)
After seeing the ESI report, the group of petitioners felt the city wasn’t open to the idea of repairing the viaduct and decided to seek legal counsel, later forming the nonprofit group Hastings Citizens with a Voice.
Jackson said he was among the group that started the nonprofit as a way to help the city.
“We believe strongly enough that we are willing to spend the money on this,” he said of the group. “We invested our time and resources because we believe in our city.”
With the council set to vote on the ballot language at its Aug. 24 meeting, the group hired a law firm to make a presentation. Hunt said the attorney had planned for a five-minute presentation, but when he arrived he was told he could only speak for two minutes.
Kearney lawyer Nick Ridgeway asked the council either not to add the item to the ballot or to rephrase it, so people would know there is an option to repair for $3.1 million, which he said was in the best interest of the community.
But Jay Bleier, the senior engineer for Olsson Associates, appeared and told the council that his firm’s initial estimate of $3.1 million was no longer valid. Bleier said that factoring in other costs such as working with the Union Pacific Railroad, permitting, engineering costs, construction and testing, quality control and quality assurance, it was reasonable to assume that cost would go up to at least $10 million.
Hunt said he felt the mayor had been unfair to the group by only allowing Ridgeway to speak for two minutes. He said he offered his time, but that only amounted to another minute.
A review of the video from the meeting showed that Ridgeway spoke a little more than three minutes before Hunt offered his time, totaling about 5.5 minutes. Bleier spoke just under three minutes.
The council approved a resolution placing a question on the general election ballot giving voters the opportunity to authorize the rebuilding of the 16th Street viaduct, issuing bonds in an amount not to exceed $12.5 million.
Jackson said he believed the petitioners should have had a chance to weigh in on the language to be used on the ballot and that using the word “rebuild” instead of “repair” disregarded the intention of the petition.
“The original language was repair,” he said. “(Changing) it went against the will of the people.”
Ptak said the wording had to be changed in light of ESI’s analysis. He said the 85-year-old viaduct was only expected to have a useful life of 50 years and a partial repair wouldn’t make it safe for traffic.
“You could do $3.2 million in repairs but would you want to drive over it if it didn’t fix it completely?” he said. “After the forensics report, I don’t think anybody would be comfortable enough to drive it if it’s not fixed all the way. If you’re going to fix it, let’s fix it right so we get more than a few years of use of out it.”
But members of Hastings Citizens with a Voice dispute ESI’s findings. They claim the firm isn’t qualified to assess the structure of the viaduct based on information listed on the company’s website and conversations with employees. They note that the author of the report, S. Anthony Siahpush, is a certified environmental inspector but doesn’t have a professional engineering stamp. Paul Douglas, a structural engineer, said at the July 27 work session that he had done some bridge assessments in engineering school. Siahpush told the board he had done seven or eight in his career.
“ESI doesn’t do bridge inspections,” Coffman said.
Calls to the company for specific information as to their qualifications to assess a viaduct were not returned Thursday, but ESI’s website says the company evaluates all types of structures for a variety of structural concerns, issues and damage. Specific structures listed included masonry structures, concrete structures, wood construction, steel construction, mixed steel and concrete structures, bridges and roadways, tilt-up wall panels, pre-fabricated buildings, and retaining walls.
Hastings Citizens with a Voice hired Jeremy Kyncl with JJK Construction of Ceresco to assess the viaduct, as well. Jackson said Kyncl is a bridge contractor qualified by the Nebraska Department of Transportation.
“He looked at it and said, ‘I’ve worked on bridges worse than this for the state,’ ” Coffman said.
Coffman said he feels the city should have been maintaining the viaduct so that it wouldn’t have fallen into disrepair.
Coffman also feels the city should have been more transparent during the process of deciding the fate of the viaduct.
“We feel like there was a lot of things decided without the public,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is we’ve been in the dark.”
But city leaders dispute that claim.
Ptak said the city found out about the problem last year and every discussion has been during open meetings. After the group of citizens launched the petition effort, he said, the city went out of its way to provide information to them.
“We have met and talked with them every step of the way,” he said. “Everything that has been decided has been in a public setting.”
Stutte said officials have made all reports that the city has received available to the public. He said it boils down to a safety issue and a decision needs to be made before the structure falls down.
“I think the public has had ample opportunity to review this,” he said. “We’ve been dealing with this for a year and a half, so it’s been in the public eye for quite some time.”