The Gristle

Diet in a time of starvation
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DIET IN A TIME OF STARVATION: Parents and concerned residents thronged Bellingham City Hall this week to learn additional details of plans to improve pedestrian and traffic safety along Alabama Street, a major city arterial and the dividing line of two significant and changing neighborhoods. Speeds are higher along Alabama, with fewer traffic calming methods and scant separation of pedestrians from heavy traffic, than nearly any other city arterial you might name—dangerous, given those neighborhoods are among those that most heavily serve lower incomes, younger families and bustling commerce when compared to other areas of the city. Yet it is also an infamous choke-point for traffic, where heavy development at Barkley Village and points east can cause extended wait periods at rush hour—a Level of Service (LOS) of F, for failure, in traffic planning parlance, the lowest score for transportation efficiency at peak hours. The intersection at Woburn is one of the most congested in the city.

Not surprisingly given all these factors, the corridor has a history of collisions—nearly 100 in a six-year study period, one of which was fatal. In all of Whatcom County, only Guide Meridian ranks higher than the Alabama corridor for vehicle collisions. Unlike the Guide for much of its length, Alabama cuts through dense residential neighborhoods with an alphabet soup of cross streets, few of which feature marked pedestrian crossings, an invitation for tragedy. The city’s study logged more than a dozen incidents of vehicles striking pedestrians along the corridor.

Unhappy costs often draw welcome revenues, and the infamy of Alabama drew the attention of funding from the state Dept. of Transportation’s Target Zero Highway Safety Program, which in 2012 offered more than $1.46 million to address problems identified along the Alabama corridor.

The city’s proposal would eliminate a second travel lane of traffic in both directions along Alabama and replace them instead with a center two-way left turn lane along the 1.75-mile length of the corridor. Left turn traffic out of residential streets, which would have to cross lanes of travel, would be prohibited. Space recovered in the road width could be used to create greater separation between motor vehicles and pedestrians. Planners call this reduction and rechannelization a “road diet” that slims lanes of travel in exchange for system improvements. Additional plans, that appeared to draw public support, would create parallel bike boulevards through Roosevelt and Sunnyland neighborhoods, reducing the requirement of Alabama to accommodate bicycles as part of the city’s multi-modal transportation plan.

Neighbors expressed concerns that the road diet would do little to calm traffic or improve access to Alabama from residential side streets. Several are dead-ends, with Alabama as the point of access. The issue, many reported, is the speed of traffic along the corridor—a problem that collides with the LOS-F factor of moving large numbers of vehicles through a heavily congested area. Others noted the folly of reducing lanes of travel along a corridor that is already at peak capacity for several hours each day.

City Council listened to comments, then referred the matter back to their Public Works/Public Safety Committee, which will hold another work session on the proposal later this month.

Improvements to the Alabama corridor would not have been possible without funding from the state, and the funding would not have been possible without the city’s six-year planning document, the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). The TIP is a planning instrument that identifies projects and directs planners and engineering staff to seek funding from state and federal sources for those projects. Some projects excite those funding sources, like economic development initiatives. Some help achieve state and federal goals, like WSDOT’s Target Zero program.

The point is, this is a useful planning tool—updated each year—that identifies problems, describes solutions, attempts to assign a timetable for the completion of projects and identifies possible sources to fund those projects. Being on the TIP makes a project eligible to receive funding under state and federal laws. In short, the TIP places a city need on someone’s radar, and the Gristle must admit city staff are talented and energetic in writing requests for grants and loans. The document serves as constant reminder to them to continue that quest.

Which brings the Gristle—while we idle for the transportation committee’s special work session—back around to the topic of Lake Whatcom and our observation that there is no TIP for the lake. There is no formal commitment on the city’s part to seek state and federal assistance for projects the city must undertake. In fact, of 17 transportation improvement projects identified by the city through 2018, only two offer the barest tangential benefit to the reservoir. Where once the city sent a representative to Olympia each session to lobby for financial assistance for the lake, the city went successive years in the recession without even attempting such a request. The city’s lobbyist is now bundled with county and port directives, again diffusing focus from the reservoir.

If city leaders are serious about upping their game on Lake Whatcom, they will consider a planning instrument like the TIP—updated and reported on each year—for the projects and funding they know the watershed requires. Cars once again elbowed in front of clean water to receive public funding but, with emphasis and effort arrayed as they are by the city, it is easy to see why.


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