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  • Kevin Elliott

Auburn Road improvement project moves forward

Rochester Hills City Council on Monday, December 4, approved a $443,000 engineering contract for preliminary design services for the city's Auburn Road Corridor Improvement Project that is anticipated to be underway in the 2019 construction season.

Council also signaled the city's intent to take over ownership of about two miles of Auburn Road, between Rochester and Auburn roads, which includes the half-mile project area, which is between Culbertson Avenue and Dequindre Road.

While final plans for the estimated $7 million project aren't expected until next year, council's approval of the $443,124 preliminary engineering indicated the city is "all in" on the project, which is intended to improve safety and encourage economic investment by creating a walkable corridor area in an underdeveloped neighborhood.

"We are going to be asked to spend a half-million dollars on this project, and I'm not comfortable on that if we aren't going all the way," councilwoman Stephanie Morita said while questioning city staff about cost of the project and how it will impact the city's fund balance. "I want this project to happen. I think it will improve the quality of life."

Plans to redevelop Auburn Road between Culbertson Avenue and Dequindre Road have been discussed by previous city councils for several years, but no formal plan had been developed until recently. An early corridor plan study, which included a market analysis and design recommendations, was presented to the city in January.

The city also approved an early preliminary engineering study by OHM Advisors, of Livonia, which was presented to council on Monday, December 4. That study set out to identify key issues, predict costs and schedules, recommend a design option and other plans. The overall goals of the project include strengthening the overall district brand as a unique destination; calm traffic and improve safety; create a walkable environment; encourage development opportunities; and improve accessibility along the corridor.

As identified in the early preliminary engineering study, the improvement plan calls for replacing the existing two-lane roadway with a narrower two-lane road separated by a continuous median and left-hand turn lanes. Traffic calming measures would include three "compact urban roundabouts" between Culbertson and Dequindre. The plan also calls for lowering the speed limit in the area from 40 mph to 25 mph; creating on-street parallel parking on Auburn Road; closing some side streets; improving alleys; installing crosswalks and lighting; and the addition of 13-foot wide sidewalks; improved stormwater drainage; and other improvements.

Councilwoman Jenny McCardell said she was pleased that the plan focused on safety, particularly that of pedestrians and cyclists in the area, noting an early-morning accident at Auburn and Culbertson involving an 11-year-old child who was struck by a vehicle turning left onto Culbertson.

The study presented on December 4 also included information on an afternoon accident involving a 15-year-old bicyclist who had been struck by a vehicle at a crosswalk on Auburn Road. In 2014, a 79-year-old pedestrian was struck and killed in the evening by a westbound vehicle on Auburn Road between Longview and Emmons.

Overall, the half-mile project area handles nearly 12,000 vehicles per day, with a crash rate of 484 crashes per 100 million vehicle miles, and 48 serious or fatal accidents – significantly above average regional rates compiled by Oakland County and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), according to the OHM report.

The proposed plan is about two million dollars over the city's initial $5 million budget for the project. However, Rochester Chief Financial Officer Joe Snyder said the city's fourth-quarter budget amendments includes a $2 million surplus, which could be used for the project. If approved, the $7 million cost would include about $3 million from the city's general fund, which would pay for improvements such as new lighting, landscape improvements, sidewalks, stormwater work and other items. Approximately $2.95 million would come from the city's major road fund. About $850,000 would need to come from the local road fund for alleyway improvements. The budget also includes about $80,000 in tree planting and $60,000 for additional water and sewer work.

"Essentially, that $2 million can roll into general fund balance, and if council chose, we could kind of earmark those dollars for the Auburn Road Corridor program," Snyder said. "Essentially, we would be at the same general fund balance in 2020 that we set out and adopted with the 2018 budget."

Snyder said using the fund would keep the city's general fund balance at a level that covers more than 100 percent of expenditures through 2020. Currently, he said the city's general fund covers about 130 percent of annual expenditures, with that falling to about 106 percent of annual expenditures by 2020.

Councilwoman Stephanie Morita questioned whether the city should maintain a fund balance that represents a figure closer to 130 percent of expenses. She recommended council consider using about $1.5 million from the city's local street fund for items not covered by the major road fund, and reducing the amount spent on other local road projects for three years. Doing so, she said, would help keep the general fund balance closer to 130 percent of expenditures.

"I look at that money for emergencies," she said. "This isn't an emergency situation."

Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan K. Barnett said the city is in a good fiscal position to move forward with the project.

"We are really in a strong position here, and that's really why we collect taxes – to invest them back in the community," he said. "If we are knocking off two things that are priorities to council, which are improving public safety and investing in public infrastructure, we think we are spending money in an appropriate fashion that is aligned with council's number one and number two priorities."

Council voted 6-1 in favor of accepting the study and approving the contract with OHM Advisors, with councilwoman Morita dissenting.

In addition to approving the contract, council directed city staff to counter an offer by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to grant ownership of a two-mile stretch of Auburn Road to the city. Under the agreement proposed by MDOT, the city would receive $300,000 toward the corridor improvement project.

Rochester Hills Deputy Director of Engineering Paul Davis said the offer appeared to be too low considering the city would be responsible for improving more than a mile of road outside of the project area. Council instructed Davis to make a counter offer to the state after a discussion in closed session regarding those negotiations.

By taking ownership of the road, the city would avoid much of the state's permitting process, which could limit redevelopment options in the corridor area, such as traffic calming improvements, crosswalks and roundabouts. As the former M-59 Highway, the city's consultants said MDOT would be more interested in moving vehicles quickly through the area, rather than fostering investment and slower speed limits.

Chief financial officer Snyder said by taking over the road, the city would receive about $80,000 to $100,000 per year in state road dollars to maintain the road, with annual maintenance running about $40,000.

"It's a net gain until year 20 when you have to replace the road," he said. "For the first 19 years, you do well."

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