September 15, 2011
Sue Johnson noticed it first. The shiny new street sign on the corner of Jefferson and Davern spelled out “Jefferrson.” Well at least they got the outline of the bike on the street sign right. Another Sue, Sue Kelly, wryly noted it should be “JeffERRson.” Err is right. The whole project, called the Jefferson Bikeway has been a series of errs. It started when the City sought neighbor input on the Bikeway and failed to notify neighbors on adjoining streets of their plans. The City then painted a stenciled “sharrow” symbol, something that looks like a biker in a funhouse mirror, in white on the asphalt along Jefferson. When a local mom asked the City why they were painting “sharrow” on a part of Jefferson which was scheduled to be torn up in the next year, the City hastily sent out its black-ops paint team to paint over the “sharrows,” hoping no one would notice. In some areas where they painted the “sharrows,” potholes developed on the “sharrow.” Now our funhouse biker looks like he’s been hit by a sledgehammer. Poor funhouse biker.
The City errors on the Jefferson Bikeway go back to the beginning, so let’s start there. Transit for Livable Communities (“TLC”) is a non-profit committed to, among other things, decreasing motor vehicle trips and maximizing “bicycle use and walking for transportation resulting in mode shift out of motor vehicles; contribut[ing] to [an] ongoing shift in attitudes and travel behavior." Heaven help us.
TLC got their hands on tens of millions of dollars (who’s counting?) of Federal money to dole out to local governments to promote TLC’s goals without the unnecessary hindrance of elected officials to hold responsible. After first trying to turn Highland Parkway in to a “bikeway” and failing, they convinced the City of Saint Paul to spend $250,000.00 on a Jefferson Bikeway and TLC would then give Saint Paul $750,000.00 of our Federal money. Simple, right? The City, being the saps they are, went all in.
Beyond the issue of why one would spend $1,000,000.00 to promote biking, something that’s already legal and available to bikers on Jefferson Avenue, beyond even the issue of how one could spend $1,000,000.00 on new signs, at least one corrected sign, some paint (both white and black) and some repainting, there are two important issues left, a proposed roadblock and the process.
When the City Council accepted the Jefferson Bikeway, they did not accept a roadblock on Jefferson at Cleveland which TLC wanted. TLC wanted the roadblock, or so called “diverter,” to promote . . . hmm . . . biking I guess? How does a roadblock promote biking? Got me. It does however promote TLC’s goal to “shift . . . travel behavior.” Not out of cars like TLC wants but it shifts cars onto residential side streets and alleys. No one has yet explained how a roadblock helps bikers, but three area moms have made some good arguments on their 100+ member Facebook page, “Against the Jefferson Avenue Median” as to why a roadblock is a bad idea. A few of those reasons are neighbor opposition, violation of all traffic engineering principles by blocking a through street in a grid system diverting traffic unsafely onto residential side streets and alleys, increased cost in road maintenance and snowplowing, the turning of Cleveland Avenue into a speedway and most importantly, thwarting fire trucks, ambulances and police from getting to where they need to go. Maybe the simplest argument is that it would be a hassle.
More troubling may be the process. The City asked for a roadblock test period, neighbor input, and a Community Council recommendation. The test was done. Neighbor input was sought (albeit online so someone from Portland, Oregon could have been giving their input) and the neighbors rejected the Roadblock. Then the Community Council rejected the roadblock. So the issue went away, right? Ahh . . . no. After a half year hiatus the City submitted the roadblock issue to the newly created City Transportation Committee, a committee full of TLC cheerleaders and supporters. The City then hastily withdrew the roadblock issue and says it needs more neighbor input. What’s going on here? Well . . .
It turns out TLC is threatening the City and specifically City Council members that they will withhold other Federal money from other projects in their wards if they do not vote to install the Jefferson Roadblock. That’s doesn’t seem right. Especially for a tax-exempt, non-profit which, by the by, isn’t allowed to target specific elected officials or take political action against them. But when you don’t need to worry about things like elections or pesky voters you can try to get away with anything you want.
TLC has full time people working for it. They are funded by grants (i.e. us) such as the one funding the Jefferson Bikeway which pays for a fancy website, a publicist, strategist and lawyer. TLC has inserted themselves into the cogs of City government and is using every political means to get what they want. If you object to them, you are pegged as anti-bike. And up against them are three moms who represent the neighbors who just want to get around, have safe streets and a functioning road system. These moms and the neighbors they represent participated in the process, went to the meetings, talked with their elected official. They have given their input. They lived through the test median and know exactly what it would mean. They are not anti-bike. In fact they point out that people biked on Jefferson and other streets in Saint Paul long before $1,000,000.00 of tax money was spent. Turns out these moms are also bikers.
Or maybe the real issue is about using a recreational activity to determine transportation policy. Bicycling is a recreational activity. Although a small percentage of people commute by biking, (and an even smaller percentage commute by biking year round in Minnesota), biking is overwhelmingly a recreational activity. People don’t take their kids to hockey on a bike. People don’t get their kids school supplies on a bike. A teenager does not pick up his prom date on a bike. Bikes are not used as ambulances or fire trucks. Bikes don’t deliver groceries and other sundries to the store. Bikes don’t pick up garbage or plow snow off the street. No one goes to a home improvement store and brings lumber home on a bike. My 80+ year old neighbor who has a cane does not take his bike to visit his wife in the nursing home. Ninety-nine point nine percent of bikers’ main form of transportation is something with an engine. The concrete which would be delivered to build the Jefferson Roadblock will not be delivered by bike.
Considering the cost of biking (the bike, the cool shades, the water bottle, the colorful spanx) one wonders why we are subsidizing the recreational activity of comfortable, educated, upper-income Americans. When Target Field was built we all heard that it was diverting needed funds from education, health care and housing from the poor. Why does spending $1,000,000.00 on signs and paint so Tad the Systems Analyst and Muffy the orthodontist can bike on Saturday morning any different? To allow bikes to determine transportation policy is like allowing hot air balloonists to determine aviation policy. Let’s remember in this debate that biking is recreation before the horse lobbyists start asking for the Jefferson Equineway.
In the end, we are left with a Jefferson Bikeway the neighbors didn’t want, is not needed and required our City to spend $250,000.00 it does not have. Fine - argument over and lost. But we can stop this roadblock without a purpose. We can stop TLC from hijacking our government process by threatening the City and our elected leaders. We can stop a roadblock being built which would make the lives of every resident of Saint Paul less safe and end this comedy of errors.