Q&A: East Peoria Mayor Kahl opposes potential lane reduction along stretch of Washington Street
A busy stretch of East Washington Street in East Peoria is in line for a resurfacing later this year, and the city is considering a significant traffic reconfiguration as part of the project.
The proposal would reduce the section of Washington between Interstate 74 and Cole Street from four 10-foot lanes to one 12-foot lane in both directions, along with a center turn lane and a shoulder.
Last month, the East Peoria City Council held a special working session to discuss the potential changes and gather public input on the idea.
In his latest regular interview with WCBU reporter Joe Deacon, East Peoria Mayor John Kahl updates the status of the resurfacing project and the possible lane reduction.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
The East Peoria City Council recently held a special meeting on the East Washington resurfacing project, and one possibility is a permanent lane reduction between Cole Street and interstate 74. What is the status of the resurfacing project, and what are the advantages or disadvantages of this possible lane reduction?
Mayor John Kahl: There has been no decision made; we're still taking public comments on that. It's going to be a challenge, I think, to see any type of lane reduction throughout that stretch. I know some of the businesses — and rightfully so — would like to see the lane reduction. However, simply based off the volume of traffic through that stretch of roadway — and the fact that you have literally three signals within a short area, if you will, to that stretch of roadway— I think it's going to be a challenge.
To that point, just last week the city had (Washington Street) reduced down to one lane for repairs, and to the point I'm saying with the traffic jam and backlog, what you ended up seeing when people realized the lane was reduced, right past Cole Street heading eastbound there was a race between the two lights, which caused further backup because as those lights cycle, there's just a lot of traffic there. I understand why they want it; personally, just based off the volume of traffic and the location, I personally don't believe that I could support a lane reduction to the stretch.
So what are the impacts that could result from it? What do you see as the issues?
Kahl: Just further backlog. Keep in mind, at certain times of day, there's heavy traffic going east and westbound through that stretch of Washington Street. If you throw a train in the mix there, which always further backs it up, but as those lights cycle on Main Street and Washington, you tend to see a traffic backup there as it is. Then you further reduce those lanes ... I know they would love to see that traffic redirected, but I don't know that there's a really good way of doing that to get around the trains as well.
So what is the status overall of the whole resurfacing project?
Kahl: That resurfacing project should be a go later this fall. Really, we don't have to have a decision made, per se, because that's going to be resurfaced no different than it would either way. It's just going to be how you configure the lanes once it's resurfaced. But I suspect the council would make a decision here within the next 30 days, 45 days.
What is currently at the top of your priority list of things you need to address or issues facing the city?
Kahl: No different than any other municipalities: Streets are always at the top of the list. You'll see a lot of street projects going on in East Peoria. We're going to continue to focus on streets as a large priority. It's great that you build new stuff, but if you don't maintain the old stuff … and then the longer that goes, the more costly it gets. So streets are certainly at the top of our list.
As you know, we have a few developments going on. We're preparing to close on the West Washington property next to City Hall for that development (501 Blutowne), and we're getting ready to close on the property down, which is known as Lot 2 on the river for that development (Riverview Lofts). So we're hoping to close on both those properties within the next 45 days or so.
When we spoke three months ago, you said you believed that the 501 Blutowne and the Riverview Lofts were on track for construction to start possibly the summer. Do you have any other updates on where those projects stand?
Kahl: No, other than both developers have put their financing in place (to) get that approved on both ends. I know TRVDA (Tri-County Regional Development Authority), their board meets July 13 or mid-July sometime there, and those should be approved. Then we close on the properties and then hopefully you start seeing some dirt move sometime this fall: August, September.
We're pretty excited. We've talked about it for a long time, and sometimes you have to have patience with these larger developments. And the other development going on — because people can obviously see it's going vertical now — is Freddy's (Frozen Custard and Steakburgers), which has been talked about for a long time as well.
Yeah, tell us a little bit about more with that, and when Freddy’s may open.
Kahl: Freddy’s, my understanding is once it went vertical, it was going to happen very quickly, just based on their business model. We've seen that; you see the sides of the building going up right now. It's down next to Moe’s (Southwest Grill) down there in the Levee District area. So I think that is scheduled to be open in fall.
What are the other latest developments in the Levee Park area? I believe I saw a new performance area open there a few weeks ago. What are the plans for this venue?
Kahl: That's interesting that you bring that up. That's not complete; the barricades are down so people can utilize the sidewalk. Of course, we've seen people go up there and sit on the stage and some people bring their guitar or whatever. But the city has yet to determine how that use of space is going to be. We're going to have to have some type of agreement in place; it is a public space and people are going to have to reserve the space for whatever functions they have. We're still working through that, what that's going to look like. But we have taken the barricades down because they're not going to move to the next phase of the park build-out until the grant monies come in and they raise additional funds. But that's part of the Levee Park design.
Do you have any idea on the timeline on when those funds may come through?
Kahl: That I don't know. They're working through a DCEO (Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity) grant on part of the funds; they have the matching funds for that grant. I don't know exactly what part of that design is covered under that.
But obviously, there's a Phase Three to that park and the foundation, the (East Peoria) Community Foundation, they've been tasked with that. They've raised these funds to build that park out, so we'll have to check with them. I was thinking they were going to have some type of ribbon cutting, but it doesn't sound like they plan on doing that until the whole design is built out.
Police Chief Rich Brodrick recently retired after 23 years. When he was promoted a little less than three years ago, you noted that he was the department's first internally hired chief in two decades. What is the timeline for hiring a new permanent chief and how extensive of a search is planned?
Kahl: I've always been a proponent, myself personally, of hiring within and I'll tell you why — a couple of things: First of all, you have the institutional knowledge of the department, the ins and the outs. Every department is a different size, so unless you bring someone in from the outside (from) a similar-size department (with) similar-sized challenges … and you don't have, if you will, a bench of candidates that have the experience — the command experience — there is no reason to bring someone in from the outside.
I think it hurts morale. It sends a negative message in the sense — just my personal opinion here — it sends the message that you're good enough to serve our community up to a certain level, but then we don't have confidence in you to reach the top. So I've always been a proponent of hiring within.
Chief Brodrick gave us a couple of weeks’ notice. I'm excited for him; (it’s) well deserved. He marked his time with our department and did a great job as our chief. The plan is to stay internal, so I don't have a timeline of that. We have a couple of outstanding deputy chiefs that currently are maintaining operations on the administrative side of things. They have experience under the belt (and) they know what they're doing, so there's no rush on bringing someone up.
So if there's no rush, are you just going to have the two deputy chiefs continue to oversee things?
Kahl: Yes, for the time being. Then we'll sit down with both those gentlemen and have a discussion here with the next couple of weeks about what direction we're going to go.
Just so I'm aware, who are these two deputies?
Kahl: Deputy Chief (Ryan) Billingsley and Deputy Chief (David) Catton.
What are the key issues or items that are set to come before the city council at its next meeting?
Kahl: It's kind of going to be a low profile meeting, if you will. We have a few ZBA (zoning board of appeals) items; the ZBA always meets, they just met this last Monday. So anything that's special-use related goes before the ZBA, then typically if those are approved, they move to the council level. So, we have I think four or five items that will be ZBA-related, special-use, nothing controversial. Nothing, I don't think, that's going to raise any red flags; we see no issues with those. Then your standard agenda items, but nothing really is hurt or controversial.
Is there anything big or controversial coming in the next few months or so? Or do you see things running fairly smoothly?
Kahl: I think this has been a great council. Listen, I give this council a lot of credit. There's no personal agendas on that council, and for the last four years we've seen that play out where they put the needs of the community first — no personal agendas. We don't always agree on everything, but you’ll leave it on the council floor and there's no hard feelings.
I don't even view anything really as controversial. I mean, there's nothing that we do at the council level, I believe, that would justify getting personal on matters and bogging the city down. We have to conduct the business, and these guys have been good about rolling up their sleeves and doing that.
How has East Peoria been able to avoid the controversy that we're seeing in some of the other similar communities around central Illinois?
Kahl: You know, we've had these type of discussions before, some on the council floor under the previous council, if you will. The form of government: We’re a commission form of government. It has its pluses and minuses. The plus is the fact that you have five elected officials that serve on that council. So, typically, you can get business done in short order.
The downside could be, (in a) commission form of government, each commissioner has a lot of responsibility and depending on the personalities, that could be a negative where they could say, “Hey, this is my department. I don't agree. Stay in your lane.” We don't have that here; this has been an outstanding council. Everybody was just re-elected back in April, so it's four more years of working together in collaboration.