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How will Olean spend its $6.5 million?

OLEAN – Many questions were asked, few were answered, when residents filled the Council Chamber of the Olean Municipal Building on Tuesday night.

With $6.5 million in federal grant money coming to the city, plans for the Walkable Olean Streetscape seem to be alive once again, but this time, with more limited design flexibility.

In a public forum, more than a dozen residents asked questions of the design consultant, Jeffrey Lebsack of Hatch Mott McDonald’s Buffalo office. One inquiry centered on how flexible the plans for North Union Street can be under the federal TIGER grant.

The plan includes the creation of five roundabouts to replace signalled intersections. Those circles have sparked much of the public discord on the project. One question dealt with the ability to redesign the project without the roundabouts.

“The project as proposed to the Department of Transportation included the roundabouts,” Lebsack said. “I believe those are one of the reasons the project was selected. Those roundabouts have a certain return on investment to them that the Department of Transportation was looking for.”

According to studies, he said, roundabouts are a safety device. Accidents and injuries are reduced by about a third where circles replace traditional intersections. Roundabouts also keep traffic moving, lessening the environmental impact of vehicles stopping and then accelerating again.

“I do not think (the Department of Transportation) would like the removal of safety features such as the roundabouts,” Lebsack said.

As for the TIGER grant, the federal Transportation Department had about $474 million to give out, according to Tuesday’s presentation. Some 585 grant applications were received, totaling a bit more than $9 billion. Across the country, 52 winners were selected.

Olean’s $6.5 million would have to be accepted, the project fully approved and a contractor hired by September 2014, Lebsack told members of the Common Council who attended the forum.

Those Council members had questions of their own, after hearing the rehashing of the plans to reduce the concrete span of North Union Street from the current four lanes to two lanes, each 11 feet wide, with an 18-foot-wide grass- and tree-filled median between them. The lanes would be lined with a bike lane and then diagonally painted parking spaces. Those spaces have not yet been determined to be pull-in or back-in.

The genesis of the project centers on a state Department of Environmental Conservation mandate to replace the city’s century-old water and sewer pipes. That plan is a large part of the current project. “It all depends on how we want to put the street back,” Ward 4 Councilman Matthew Keller reminded those in attendance.

The estimated cost of infrastructure replacement is $1.475 million. To replace streetlights, which have created safety concerns within the city, will cost $200,000. Sidewalk replacement and road and curb costs, to be done according to the streetscape plan, would cost roughly $6.575 million.

The forum was the first in a series of meetings and “drop-ins” that will allow residents to see the plans for the future of North Union Street. A final meeting will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 5 to view the plans and ask further questions of city officials and planning consultants.