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Traffic, parking signs may be barometers

Jan. 22, 2014

It's hard to measure the frustration one feels driving around in a city choked by traffic. But any given driver might have a sense that traffic has gotten worse in the last year or so, and have a vague idea that it has to do with the Zoo Interchange project, city streetwork and the general overabundance of cars.

What may be an easier-to-read barometer is to take a look at the business that flows past the eyes of the members of the Wauwatosa Traffic and Safety Committee.

In most months, it meets twice, but in 2012, it had so little to do at some points that about five times the members didn't even gather when they normally would have. Another four or five times the committee had just one item on its agenda, and a lot of its meetings were brief.

But last year was a different matter. The panel still had some brief meetings, and some meetings with just one item on the agenda. But it drew passionate groups of neighbors on a number of occasions who showed up to argue the pros and cons of street signs.

Stop signs, parking and no parking signs, speed limit signs, and no U-turn signs.

Adding signs

About 20 times it considered a new parking restriction, a new stop sign or a new traffic control sign of some kind, and almost every time ordered the sign installed for a 45- or 90-day trial, and after every trial it considered whether to make the change permanent. And, almost every time, it did.

The Common Council then would vote. Some of the signs required ordinance changes, when both bodies would look at them again.

And these weren't just individual signs. A new four-way stop requires four signs. Parking restrictions sometimes require several signs. And, in one memorable instance — a complex resolution approved in late November controlling parking and traffic in the Wisconsin Lutheran College neighborhood — 50 signs were installed.

"We had to get them in before the ground froze," Public Works Director William Porter said. "So we installed them, we put the signs up backward so they wouldn't be visible, and then yesterday (Tuesday) we turned them around, so the 90-day trial really starts yesterday."

Neighbor against neighbor

Street sign requests sometimes pit neighbor against neighbor. On Hillside Street, a short, narrow dead-end from 68th Street to Jacobus Park, residents approached the city about a parking ban on one side of the street to make passage easier and allow city garbage trucks, plows and emergency vehicles to get through.

"I think we did three ballots there," Porter said. "The neighbors initially came forth and said they wanted parking banned on one side. So we did a survey and the majority of the residents favored a parking prohibition on one side ... and then we came to the meeting, and the opposite group of neighbors came to the meeting and said, 'We really don't want the parking on the other side,' so we posted it on the other side, and then the former group of neighbors came out and said, 'Well, gee, we thought you were going to post it on this other side, and you don't know what you're doing.' Finally, Alderman (Dennis) McBride said we're just going to have one final street ballot — a forever-hold-your-peace ballot. We did, and it was a narrow vote, but they voted for no parking on the (south) side."

"Half the people in this room are gonna hate me," McBride said, after making his motion banning parking on the north side of the street. "I'm sorry."

The whole process took two 45-day trials, and two installations of signs. And even then, some residents left the final meeting grumbling.

Citing the manual

Frequently in committee Porter cites the "Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices," a federal publication that offers guidance on the appropriate use of signs, based on traffic counts and other factors. Several times last year the committee voted for stop signs against the manual's recommendation.

"The manual governs how we post signs," Porter said. "Certainly there's a legislative oversight that I understand completely. It's like civilian rule in the military, right? On the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you still report to a civilian. I understand that I can make recommendations, but ultimately it's the committee that is the leadership that makes the decision."

McBride, who has served on the Traffic and Safety Committee for six years, ever since he's been on the Common Council, sees a marginal increase in sign requests coming to the committee.

Parking and traffic requests related to Wisconsin Lutheran was one factor, he said. Also, a couple of sign requests were recently approved related to the presence of the new Colectivo coffee shop on 68th and Wells streets.

"I think what you're seeing is more sign requests, more traffic and safety issues because Wauwatosa is full of economic development," he said.

Members of the Traffic and Safety Committee last year were Aldermen Jason Wilke (chairman), McBride, James Moldenhauer, Bobby Pantuso and Jeff Roznowski.

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