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PBOT works around diverter debate in 50s Bikeway project

The 50s Bikeway project
is at City Council today!
(Map: PBOT)

The 50s Bikeway project will be up for a vote at City Council today. While it’s expected to get the required three votes of support, you can also expect some loud opposition to one specific piece of the project — a diverter planned for SE 52nd just north of Division.

Before I get into that, here’s a quick reset of the project: The $1.5 million, federally funded 50s Bikeway will create a 4.5 mile bike-friendly corridor on 52nd/53rd Avenues from NE Thompson to SE Woodstock. The public process for the project began back in January. Since then, the Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) has held a robust public process (41 public meetings) that wrapped up with the second of two open houses at the end of June.

“When the Mayor’s office gets a petition from 200 people on any project, it requires us to do a more of our due diligence, and try to understand, are we missing something here?”
— Mark Lear, PBOT

Every one of the 10 neighborhoods the project passes through voted to support the project and it will bring changes to the street that have been on the wish list of PBOT and advocates for over a decade.

For a project of this size and scope, most observers have applauded the PBOT project team. The project boasts what is likely one of the most significant conversions of on-street auto parking to bikeway space the city has ever done. On the entire eastern side of 52nd between Woodstock and Division, PBOT will re-allocate space currently used for parking 200 cars and will use it instead to make room for bike lanes in each direction. And it happened without any controversy at all (Mayor Adams chalks this up to the presence of Sunday Parkways in the neighborhood, which he feels has helped soften general bikeway opposition).

Now. Let’s get to the diverter issue.

PBOT’s proposed diverter at 52nd and Division

While the project (with the diverter) was supported by a large majority of residents at the final open house on June 29th (86 out of 134 comments received were in support), strong opposition to the diverter has caused City Hall and PBOT to take more time to address the issue.

The project was initially slated for a City Council vote on September 1st, then date was pushed back to September 22nd, and pushed back again to today.

Residents that live on SE 51st and 53rd (streets adjacent to the proposed bikeway) are concerned that if the 1,500 cars that currently travel north on SE 52nd across Division to SE Lincoln can’t continue to do so, they will simply spill over onto their streets.

A resident on SE 51st started a petition letter to Mayor Sam Adams that ended up with 200 signatures.

That petition — started by 51st Ave residents Amy Larson and Julie Rhodes — got the attention of City Hall and led to a series of meetings at the end of July and beginning of August between Mayor Adams’ staff, PBOT planners, and residents both for and against the diverter.

PBOT feels a diverter is neccessary at Division because the street narrows at that location and there’s no room for bike lanes unless both sides of on-street auto parking were reclaimed. That’s a”political impossibility” according to PBOT spokesperson, so the solution is to install a semi-diverter (bikes could go in both directions, but autos couldn’t go north) that would prevent auto traffic from continuing north on 52nd past Division.

In order to reach their standard of a comfortable bike street, PBOT needs to reduce the number of auto traffic north of Division from the existing volume of about 2,500 cars to about 1,000 cars or lower.

What happens to all that traffic? That’s what the opposition is worried about.

According to PBOT spokesperson Mark Lear, “When the Mayor’s office gets a petition from 200 people on any project, it requires us to do a more of our due diligence, and try to understand, are we missing something here?”

To answer neighbor concerns, PBOT performed traffic flow models to make sure that the main north-south streets in the area — SE 50th and SE 60th — could handle the extra auto traffic. “Indeed it can,” says PBOT project planner Rich Newlands.

Unfortunately, PBOT says neighbors opposed to the diverter simply don’t believe the City’s analysis. PBOT estimates that around 150 additional cars will use adjacent streets, which is well under their threshold for success (300 cars) when they do diversion.

But even that number of cars isn’t acceptable to some residents.

Among their objections are that Division itself can’t handle the extra traffic. They also feel adjacent streets are too narrow to accept the overflow and that PBOT’s own stated measure of success — an additional 150-180 cars on adjacent streets, “isn’t acceptable to residents.”

Rhodes and Johnson, the women who are behind the opposition to the diverter, circulated an email to their supporters yesterday. The email encouraged people to testify against the diverter at Council today — but to also make it clear that they support the project overall.

Here’s an excerpt from that email:

“… it is CRITICAL that you show up and be heard by the City Council members before they vote. If we as neighbors can speak with one loud voice saying “NO DIVERTER at 52nd” and ask the city to not have neighbors pay such a high price for a two-block stretch of bikeway, we remain optimistic that the city will be forced to listen.”

In many ways, PBOT has listened to the opposition. In response to concerns raised by the neighborhood, they have proposed a detailed process to test the changes they plan to implement.

Typically, they would have installed the diverter as planned and then done some analysis to make sure it didn’t have unintended consequences. If it did, they could have rolled out a number of mitigation measures as needed until the conditions improved.

However, now they’re prepared to implement a host of measures at the outset. In addition to the diverter, they’ll add “capacity improvements” to SE 50th (signal timing and a right turn lane), they’ll add new stop signs on 53rd and 54th to calm cut-through traffic, they’ll add a curb extension on Division at SE 51st (to prevent northbound cut-through when 50th is stopped), they’ll consider a bike box at Lincoln and SE 50th, and they’ll consider speed bumps on SE 51st, 53rd, and 54th.

These are all things that were in their “back pocket” the entire time, says PBOT, but now they’ll implement them all at once.

Four months after implementation, they’ll check back in with residents to see how things are going. And then, in a first for PBOT, if after eight months the volumes of cut-through traffic on 51st, 53rd, and 54th “exceed the impact threshold” they have agreed to remove the diverter entirely.

Even with this testing plan on the table, Rhodes and Johnson still oppose the diverter. “‘Testing’ the most drastic option first,” they wrote to their supporters yesterday, “is not good policy. PBOT’s solution of a diverter has far-reaching consequences and is widely unpopular among the residents most directly affected by it.”

On the other side of the coin are many local residents in support of the diverter. The fact is, of all the tools PBOT can employ to reduce auto volumes on a street, hard diversion is the one that works best. Without it, PBOT and supporters feel, SE 52nd won’t be a nice street to bike on.

The Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) is strongly in favor of the diverter. They plan to bring a petition of their own to City Council today signed by 113 people.

Stay tuned for coverage of how things turn out. You can learn all their is to know about this project by checking out a sneak peek of the presentation (PDF) PBOT will present to City Council today.

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