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University Ave. Reconstruction Concerns Waterloo & Cedar Falls Merchants

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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa A proposed reconstruction of University Avenue in both Cedar Falls and Waterloo has merchants along the busy street both worried and nervous.

One Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) engineer said any reconstruction of the five-mile-long commercial street isn't funded yet and probably wouldn't start for at least two years. But the DOT needs the city councils in both cities to pick a preferred reconstruction plan soon. And at least one of the two proposals contains some features that really concern business owners.

As busy as it is now, more vehicles used University Avenue years ago when carried Highway 218 traffic. The DOT has narrowed the design to two real choices. Both call for reducing the width of the commercial street from six lanes to four. The exception would be the portion of University Avenue that runs in front of College Square Mall near the University of Northern Iowa campus. That would remain six lane. But the real stumbling block for some business owners is the idea of numerous roundabouts on the busy commercial street as many as 12 in the five miles.

Jon Davis, owner of Slumberland Furniture at 4020 University Avenue, said going to that many roundabout intersections would just kill his business.

"They are talking about roundabouts on either side of me. That takes 15 feet of our parking lot. That's what the plan says and I don't have 15 feet to give up," Davis said.

Davis said semi drivers who make frequent deliveries to businesses along University Avenue might also have trouble negotiating the circular roundabout intersections.

Cedar Falls Mayor Jon Crews said the city council there is set to discuss a preferred University Avenue plan at the council meeting Monday night. He believes a majority prefer the plan that does allow space for as many as 12 roundabouts. But Crews said business owners are worrying about the "what ifs" way too early. He believes the council might endorse the plan with the roundabouts now simply as a way of keeping options open for later.

"We aren't voting on that (roundabout) design. But we're saying we'd like to look at that in the future. Picking the narrow footprint option eliminates that from future review," the mayor said.

Shrinking University Avenue from six lanes to four would free up more space for sidewalks and bike paths along the side of the busy street. Both the mayor and merchants said the street needs major work and not just simple repaving.

But Karl Morehouse, owner of Direct Appliance, said he'd much prefer eliminating the continuous median separating lanes and replacing it with more turn lanes. He fears too much tinkering, and especially so many roundabouts, would confuse his customers and send them elsewhere to shop.

"For a business like ours, we have to have the traffic down University Avenue. That's how we survive. It's very important to keep that traffic flowing," Morehouse said.

One DOT engineer said the most recent cost estimate of the project was $40-million dollars. But that was done back in 2010. There is no guarantee the project would start within the two year estimate given by the mayor. Once started, work would go in phases and might last as long as three years.

While Cedar Falls council members will vote on a preferred plan Monday, the city of Waterloo probably won't make a choice for another four to six weeks.

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