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Monday, July 14, 2014
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Published: Monday, 1/14/2013

'Ombudsman' to smooth way for road project

Toledo provides 'go-to' person to field residents complaints

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Editor's Note: This version has corrected Secor to a five-lane road, which includes a center turn lane.

When a city contractor starts tearing up a key part of Secor Road within two months to replace a water main -- work to be followed by curb-to-curb street reconstruction -- property owners along the way should have a new "go-to" person to hear their comments or complaints.

Following a practice introduced three years ago in Milwaukee, the Toledo Division of Engineering Services plans to hire an "ombudsman" for the rebuilding project on Secor between Central Avenue and Monroe Street, a stretch of street used by about 35,000 cars and trucks on a typical day.

This will be "the person the community could go to with questions or comments" about the construction project, said Robin Whitney, Toledo's commissioner of engineering services.

For now, Ms. Whitney said, the city's intent is to hire the project ombudsman as a temporary employee -- probably through an employment agency. But if the program is deemed a success, she said, it could be repeated for other projects, or even made a permanent position.

That's what Milwaukee ended up doing after initially hiring consultants to serve as community liaisons when it embarked on a wave of street-rebuilding projects in 2010, said Cecilia Gilbert, the Support for Business liaison with the city's Department of Public Works.

"We knew we had to have people out there helping folks while their streets were being torn up," Ms. Gilbert said.

Milwaukee's liaisons' primary role has been spearheading communication before projects start, she said, and troubleshooting issues that arise after construction begins.

For one project, Ms. Gilbert said, a liaison arranged for a sign directing a doctor's patients to a back-alley entrance to his offices while the driveway out front was blocked. At another, the liaison arranged for a No Left Turn sign to eliminate backups caused by motorists lining up to turn left into a side street that became an unofficial alternate route around a work area.

"Signage was a huge part of our success," she said, noting that while getting information out about projects ahead of time also is important, there are always property owners and drivers who don't pay attention.

"No matter what you do, when the project begins -- when the earth moving starts -- people start to panic," Ms. Gilbert said.

Not only does construction jam up traffic, it can require eliminating on-street parking and force bus stops to move, she said, so part of a project ombudsman's job can be to come up with alternative accommodations for people affected by those things.

Secor between Central and Monroe has no on-street parking, but it is part of several Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority routes, and TARTA buses do not stop in construction zones.

Ms. Whitney said issues she expects a city liaison for the Secor work to handle could include temporary signs; ideas for construction-themed business promotions, and dust control.

"In commercial areas, these kinds of projects can cause a lot of congestion, and that frustrates people," she said. "We try to minimize those impacts, but there is always some inconvenience with our projects."

"Most of the time when we ask, 'Can we help you?' they say, 'Yeah, get the project done quicker,' " Milwaukee's Ms. Gilbert said.

The Secor project will involve rebuilding 0.85 mile of five-lane street, including new sidewalks, curbs, gutters, concrete driveway aprons, and trees between the sidewalk and curb.

The road project is expected to cost $5.6 million, including $3 million in federal and state grants and $2.6 million in city capital-improvement funds from the Westgate tax-increment financing pool -- money that Toledo receives from taxpayers in the neighborhood and must spend there, too.

Last week, Columbia Gas resumed relocating its gas main under Secor in anticipation of the project. It started the gas-main work last year, but suspended it in mid-November to avoid lane closings during the Christmas shopping season.

Columbia's work also includes installing a new gas main under Monroe near Secor, work that is slated to resume today and require lane closings on Monroe through March.

Bid advertising for the city's contract is scheduled to start late this month, with bids to be opened in mid-February. Construction is expected to begin by early March with the water main replacement, Ms. Whitney said, and scheduled to wrap up in November.

A public meeting about the project is planned for sometime "within a week or two" of the bid opening date, Ms. Whitney wrote in a memo to city council.

Street reconstruction will be divided into at least two sections -- one between I-475 and Monroe, the other between I-475 and Central -- to maintain a fair degree of access to the freeway, Ms. Whitney said.

Such phasing was a citizen suggestion from one of several public forums the engineering services division held last year concerning its upcoming projects, the commissioner said.

"You can get a lot of good ideas from people if they're thinking from different perspectives," she said. "I'm not saying this [having an ombudsman] is going to solve all the problems, but it's great to do what you can."

City councilman Tom Waniewski, whose district includes the commercial district along Secor, was part of the city group that traveled to Milwaukee last year for "best-practices" discussion and learned about the ombudsman concept.

"I know I'll be getting complaints on the paving process, but the city, I believe, is doing a great job mitigating any detriment to motorists and businesses," Mr. Waniewski wrote in his monthly newsletter to constituents. "And in a few short months, we'll be driving on a road free of the crater-like pot holes on Secor."

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.


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