The Columbia Chamber of Commerce is accusing the City Council of neglecting issues and projects important to Columbia citizens.
In a news release issued last Wednesday, the chamber aired its grievances about several infrastructure projects it says the council should be addressing but is failing to move forward on.
The chamber said in a May 17 news release that this has been a consistent problem and that the council has ignored projects and issues that have been approved by voters and that are important to business owners in Columbia.
The chamber cited an automated phone survey it conducted that randomly called both landlines and cellphones across Columbia's six wards. Nearly 1,700 people responded to the survey.
Here are the results of two of the questions that were asked:
Q: In your opinion, how important is it for the Columbia City Council to complete infrastructure projects that have been approved by voters?
56.53% Very important29.6% Somewhat important3.73% Somewhat unimportant2.67% Very unimportant7.47% Don’t know/undecided
Q: City Councilman Ian Thomas has proposed a “road diet” be applied to Forum Boulevard. In your opinion, should Columbia resident tax dollars be spent on decreasing the amount of road space available to drivers along Forum Boulevard by reducing the number of lanes from four to two and building additional bike lanes along this busy stretch of road?
6.76% Yes 71.27% No
“These polling numbers are surprising and telling of how Columbia citizens really feel and their expectations of the council,” Chamber President Matt McCormick said in the news release.
McCormick told the Missourian during an interview that the survey included other questions, but the chamber decided to only focus on those two in the release. He also declined to say what the other questions were.
“We decided to focus on these two questions because it followed along with our legislative agenda," McCormick said during the interview.
McCormick was referring to questions about whether the council should follow through on projects approved by voters. The second asked whether they supported the use of tax money to reduce the number of lanes on a section of Forum Boulevard, a project known as a "road diet" that as been proposed by Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas.
A proposal to widen Forum from Chapel Hill Road to Nifong Boulevard to four lanes was among a package of projects that voters approved in August 2015 when they passed an extension of the city's quarter-cent sales tax for capital improvements.
The chamber stated that some projects have been tabled for some time, and that there is no beginning in sight while the council and the public continue to debate the cost and necessity of widening that stretch to four lanes.
Thomas has been at the center of these debates, recently bringing forward the "road diet" idea from Lawrence Simonson, assistant director of the PedNet Coalition and secretary for the city Bicycle and Pedestrian Commission. The plan would decrease the number of lanes from Woodrail Avenue to Green Meadows Road to two lanes and, instead, add a protected bike lane.
Thomas declined to comment on the tone of the chamber's criticism, but he did say there is no need to widen Forum to four lanes, advocating for a cheaper alternative than the almost $13 million project to add lanes.
"The traffic volumes don't come close to warranting it," he said.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala questioned the validity of the chamber's news release in its assertion that the council is "focusing on issues that are not important to the people of Columbia."
"Not correct," Skala told the Missourian. "If they take a look at the public records and voting records, the idea that we aren't serving the public interest is unrealistic."
Skala said he agrees with the chamber that the council needs to deliver on what it has promised, but he added that ballot initiatives only include suggestions for projects. It's up to the council, he said, to decide how, in this case, money from the 2015 extension of the capital improvement sales tax, will be spent.
"The extent to which we address these issues is decided upon by the City Council," Skala said. Specific projects are not included in ballot language, he added.
Skala also emphasized the importance of spending money equally among Columbia's six wards and noted that the proposed Forum Boulevard project and another to widen a section of Nifong Boulevard would account for about half the total spending on roads that was proposed when the tax was approved.
"Equity is important to the city's allocation of resources," Skala said. "We never promised we would spend $12 million on the Forum problem. We promised to pay attention to it, but we were never bound to the numbers."
The chamber sees things differently. This project was approved a couple of years ago, McCormick said, and businesses along Forum Boulevard have been planning accordingly. With more lanes, they anticipated more traffic and better public access to their businesses.
Businesses have been complaining to the chamber about the delay, and the chamber is responding by pressuring the council.
Other unfinished projects
The news release also includes chamber complaints regarding other tabled or incomplete projects approved by voters.
These included three intersection projects, the Henderson Branch sewer project, stormwater projects and the new electric substation and high-voltage power lines.
A roundabout at Forum and Green Meadows Road was abandoned in September and another at Fairview and Chapel Hills roads was postponed in June when residents near those intersections complained to the council.
McCormick, however, said that the chamber encourages the council to remember not only to consider citizens who speak at council meetings but also those who voted on ballot issues and what the election outcomes were.
Last Monday, the council moved the Henderson Branch sewer project to the design phase. McCormick said it was good to see movement on a possible design and funding but said a lot remains to be done.
Voters in 2015 approved a $63.1 million bond issue that included money to build an electric substation and accompanying high-voltage power lines. That work has stalled as the council has been unable to find a route for the power lines that the public will support.
McCormick said the chamber is not advocating for a specific route, but its members want to keep the project at the forefront of the council's agenda.
Also in April 2015, voters approved a measure increasing stormwater bills to pay for a host of projects for that utility. McCormick said businesses have been waiting to see those projects completed.
“We don’t always take a position on issues, (but) we stay on top of these issues to make sure we educate our business communities what's going on there and how they can get involved.”