April 19, 2021

Council pumps the brakes to examine public outcry of intersection change

Newton mayor held discussion in case council wished to revisit ordinance

Newton Mayor Mike Hansen received 47 phone calls and text messages from citizens after the city council passed an ordinance adding a “No Right Turn on Red” sign to the south quadrant of the intersection at East 12th Street North and First Avenue East. Hansen said he never experienced something like this before.

“I even remember back to when we were discussing the Iowa Speedway, and whether to do that or not,” Hansen said. “Forty-seven text messages or phone calls (asking), ‘Why are we doing this? This makes no sense.’’”

Because of the overwhelming response from citizens, Hansen held a discussion with fellow city council members Monday, April 5 to review the already acted on ordinance amendment. Hansen felt it would be appropriate to have this talk if council members felt they should reconsider or wanted more information.

“I think we have a duty — and I don’t think anybody here would disagree with me — that when there is such an inquiry … we have a duty and responsibility to respond to that,” Hansen said.

In order to add a “No Right Turn on Red” rule to the intersection, the city council was required to amend its ordinances. When staff propose changes to city code, it is necessary for the council to deliberate over three readings, or considerations, which also allows for the public to argue in favor or against the amendment.

After three readings with seemingly no objections from the public, the city council approved the change. Responses on Newton News’ Facebook page indicate many residents were unhappy with the intersection change. However, it was citizens’ complaints that propelled the city to add new signage.

Complaints focused on the limited visibility from the west. Although traffic accident reports from the past three years do not show collisions being caused by the restricted vision, citizens reported witnessing near misses.

The city’s Traffic Safety Committee conducted an analysis of the intersection and determined it was insufficient for vehicles to safely view conflicting vehicles or objects approaching from the west, city documents stated. The added signage is an attempt to decrease opportunities for collisions or other traffic disruptions.

Hansen understands why staff recommended a “No Right Turn on Red” designation, but he also acknowledged the community “has lived with this traffic intersection for years and years and years.” The mayor also knows why council members voted for the change. But perhaps they’d like to revisit it, he said.

“Anywhere from moving of signage to moving of crosswalks so the intersection more aligns so that the ‘stop’ part of the intersection is not back so far — that’s what’s dictating this, by the way,” Hansen said. “…The stop designation is always behind the pedestrian right of way and crosswalk.”

Vehicles, he clarified, are to stop behind the white line when a red light is present. Because of the placement of a nearby building — the former Newton Manufacturing building — Hansen suggested drivers don’t have a standard, unobstructed sight triangle.

Hansen pointed out the intersection change and the public’s response to it is an example of why the city holds three readings before final action. The mayor said he’s not blaming local media like Newton News and KCOB, but unfortunately when the council goes through that process it may not be reported.

“Because they may probably take the position of, ‘Well, it really isn’t done until it’s done.’ When all of you are done going through the entire process and actually passing it is when they report on it. I get that! I understand that,” Hansen said. “… When it got reported, that’s when we had a lot of folks deciding to give input.”

Councilperson Randy Ervin, who voted against the ordinance, said he’s used the intersection often and remembers when the city built the right-turn-only lane. And the reason it was built, he said, is because there can be “a highly congested” traffic stop. Transitioning to a no-right-on-red would back up traffic, he argued.

“You’re going to be sitting through possibly one, two — maybe even in some instances, three — cycles of lights before you move,” Ervin said. “…You’re going to bottle neck that whole intersection going south, which is an important intersection if you’re coming from the Speedway, coming from the south.”

Ervin questioned why the city or council didn’t “come across this concern” when the right-turn-only lane was created. The councilman would like to revisit the ordinance, but that, too, can be complicated. Ervin created a scenario in which the council revisited and reversed the action, and then an accident occurred.

Would the city be liable? The mayor’s discussions with the city attorney found that, yes, the city would be held liable.

Councilperson Craig Trotter asked what it would cost the city to move or rearrange the sidewalk. Hansen said the rough estimates were $20,000-$30,000. Other recommendations included asking the property owner to the southwest to remove a sign, but Hansen is not so sure it fixes the problem.

Councilperson Evelyn George said the best case scenario from the results of an intersection change is the city is preventing a personal injury or property damage, especially inexperienced drivers or those who are slower to react. The worst case scenario is the city paying to put a sign up and drivers having to wait.

“Or we have to put ‘STOP HERE’ boldly on the pavement. I don’t know if we can do that or not. You know, it’s going to take a little bit of time,” George said. “What the locals will do is they’ll go east or west to another intersection to get on First Avenue, and they’ll be able to resolve that pretty easily themselves.”

Newton Public Works Director Jody Rhone said the “Stop Here” designation can only be used when all legs of the intersection are required to stop all the time, so that means it could not be placed on the south quadrant of East 12th Street North and First Avenue East.

Councilperson Steve Mullan, who voted in favor of the ordinance, said he drove to the south quadrant of the intersection and timed himself to see how long it would take to make a right turn.

“I waited 30 seconds — the light changed,” Mullan said. “So I think people are so impatient anymore they can’t even wait 30 seconds. I didn’t have a problem with that … On First Avenue I went from east to west. I hit two stop (lights), 30 seconds each, before they changed. I didn’t have a problem with that.”

But the sightline is “terrible,” he added, especially if there’s a vehicle to the left of the right lane. Mullan said drivers cannot see around those vehicles, and “God help you if somebody” flies by from the west on a flashing yellow light.

“I think it’s a setup for eventually somebody getting hurt,” Mullan said. “I don’t care what the record’s been at this point, but I think the city opening itself to be very liable at some point in the future.”

Councilperson Dean Stonner agreed, saying he was “fine” with the action council has taken. It’s an odd intersection, he said, because of the placement of the building on the southwest corner.

“That is the way it is,” Stonner said. “That’s just something we’re going to have to live with. I support the ordinance as passed.”

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

Christopher Braunschweig

Reporter with a strong penchant for community journalism.