Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Bus Rapid Transit Delayed on Penn Ave N (And Why That's a Good Thing)

Disclaimer:  I serve on the Penn Avenue Community Works committee as a delegate on behalf of the Jordan neighborhood.  The only formal position JACC has taken on the Penn Bus Rapid Transit is that there be an additional stop in Jordan besides the Broadway and Lowry stations.  If JACC takes additional positions, I will work to implement them as long as I am on the committee as a Jordan delegate.

The Penn Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project, also known as the C Line, had recently picked up quite a bit of momentum.  In late 2014, we were informed that the BRT line in St. Paul (B Line) was not moving forward as quickly as anticipated.  That potentially freed up funding to allow detailed design to begin in 2015 with construction on the C Line in 2016.  At recent Penn Avenue meetings, we were operating under the hope that this funding and construction schedule would take place.

But there is an entity called the Transportation Advisory Board that makes programming decisions for these funds, and at their January 21st meeting they decided...

...NOT to allocate the B Line's $12.3 million directly to the C Line.  There is a process by which the TAB could possibly allocate the funding for an aggressive construction start date, but at this point it seems very unlikely.  A 2016 or 2017 construction timeline is much more feasible.

And that's a good thing, because anyone advocating for bike lanes on Penn was completely blindsided at the last meeting where the community vote on a design preference would be brought to the Penn Avenue Community Works steering committee.  Throughout 2014, the community had been narrowing down our design choices to either bike lanes on Penn with the loss of some parking, or no bike lanes on Penn whatsoever, more parking and vehicular traffic, and (to be fair) more pedestrian amenities.  Those two designs were known as 1A (no bike lanes) and 2A (bike lanes).

Design 1A would still try to come up with a bike boulevard of some kind on either Oliver or Queen.  But it presented its own set of difficulties, such as what to do around Bassett Creek, Highway 55, Broadway Avenue, Lucy Laney School, and pretty much the entire route anyway.  (More on that in my next blog post, with a hyperlink to follow.)

Design 2A had its drawbacks too.  One of the starting points for the project is that there would be no taking of additional right of way (and in many cases the narrower parts of Penn don't have much additional right of way anyhow).  So it was a challenge to fit ADA accessible sidewalks, busing, at least some parking, vehicle traffic, and additional boulevard or tree foliage.  In the winter time, keeping bike lanes free of snow would be its own challenge.

You'll notice I don't have the loss of parking as a drawback.  Because frankly if we want the kinds of amenities and density that other parts of the city have, we must admit it's going to be a little harder to find a place to park directly in front of whatever our destination is.  Why just the other night I went to a historic preservation event in Uptown and (gasp!) I had to either pay for parking or walk four blocks to patronize a bar.  I walked.  Oh, and there were people biking along a busy street.  In the winter.

So, while the advisory committee was whittling down our two choices to the one with some actual vision vs. the one with about $15 million of slightly faster buses, we came to the meeting prepared to vote.  At that session we were presented with a "hybrid" option that combined 1A and 2A and at least tried to take the best parts of each.  I'm not much of a hybrid person, demonstrated by the fact that my other bike is a 1995 Oldsmobile Ciera.  But the last-minute presentation of the hybrid choice left the committee with several problems.

First off, the committee delegates and alternates had literally no time to consider the options prior to our "vote" on a "preference."  For those who felt a strong obligation to cast a vote that was representative of their community or constituency, they were caught flat-footed.  There was one abstention and talk of more.  Second, the lack of any meaningful discussion on the hybrid route left no chance to tweak that plan to possibly sway peole from supporting 1A (or 2A).

And the largest issue, from my perspective, is that when you totaled the delegate votes (there were alternates present as well) in favor of 2A, hybrid, or abstaining, that number was a statistical dead heat with 1A.  While not every hybrid vote would have gone for the 2A option, I guarantee you every single biking vote would have gone to the hybrid option if we knew that was the only shot at bike lanes on at least parts of Penn.  But by conducting the tally in this manner, the pro-bike votes appeared split and diminished, paving the way for cars and buses and nothing else on the Avenue.

I keep wracking my brains about how a decision of this magnitude, even an advisory one, could have been so utterly and poorly mishandled.  It's almost as if someone *wanted* a certain outcome and orchestrated events just so.  Granted, in my experience people are more likely to be stupid than conspiratorial.  And I know many of the staffers working the project.  They are neither.  But this vote was poorly executed and lacks any credibility, and should be seen as such.

Which brings us back to the "good" news that construction is delayed for the time being.  That means we have time to organize.  It means we can go to any elected official whose vote or support will be necessary for the project to even break ground, and impress upon them the importance of good biking infrastructure.  Anything less than bike lanes on Penn should be a non-starter for the project as a whole.

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