A proposed bike lane on Brook Road has encountered rough going from residents who want clarity on its details, and a counterproposal from City Council members is not gaining traction from bicycle proponents.
City Council members Chris Hilbert and Kim Gray — who say they are not anti-bike — argue the proposal wouldn't prevent future bike lanes. They say it would help initiate a comprehensive study and address unanswered questions before the federally funded project moves forward.
But bike lane enthusiasts strongly disagree. Bike Walk RVA, perhaps the most coordinated and visible advocate, has assembled a colorful flyer detailing the lane's potential benefits. "If this ordinance passes, it will be the first major setback we have seen in our city's pursuit of a safe, equitable, nonmotorized transportation network," says Max Hepp-Buchanan, the group's director.
Still, council members and residents say the flyer doesn't grapple with emerging safety issues or day-to-day concerns such as maintenance. To cool this bubbling stew of community confusion, a public meeting will be held for 2nd and 3rd district residents Sept. 11 at 6 p.m. at the Richmond police training building at 1202 W. Graham Road.
Tempers flared during an Aug. 15 meeting held for North Side civic association leaders. Hilbert and Gray say it was intended as an efficient way to prepare for the larger September gathering. But after The Free Press published the meeting's location, passionate residents and TV cameras showed up.
Speculation spread on social media that it was a staged event designed to project anti-bike sentiment. "That couldn't have been further from the truth," Hilbert says. "I'm not up there with some plot to make this meeting one way or the other." He adds that the city gets "a D-minus on communication with the residents, and that would be extremely generous." The city's small-font engineering diagrams cannot help the average concerned resident, he says. He adds that Mayor Levar Stoney has verbally dismissed his call for a new traffic study.
Willie Hilliard, president of the Brookland Park Area Association, says constituent emails prompted him to attend the Aug. 15 meeting.
"Just from the few constituents that have talked to me, I support some kind of compromise from all parties," he says. "I don't particularly care for them bringing [Brook Road] down to one single lane. From my perspective, what I don't want to see is what they did on Franklin Street. I just say this being lighthearted: These bike lanes need to come with an instruction manual."
Regarding the single lane, what Hilliard is referring to is a road diet. If a road handles fewer than 20,000 trips per day, it's eligible to have the number of lanes reduced, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The Bike Walk RVA flyer says Brook Road currently experiences 11,000 daily trips at its busiest, and claims that new apartments will not create significant traffic impact. However, many believe that more traffic is coming.
"A traffic count is a moment in time," Gray says. "It's not a study. First of all, a comprehensive master plan, by definition, looks at land use and respective thoroughfares and roadways, into the next 20 years. My goal is not to kill the bike lane. My goal is to wake up the Department of Public Works so they can talk to me and not just do what they want to do."
"There really does need to be a better and more comprehensive study, which is forward looking as opposed to backward looking," says Pierce Homer, a Brook Road resident and former state secretary of transportation. "That dates back to our neighborhood's very awful experience with the administration on the Westwood Tract development that was poorly done by any measure. Our skepticism of traffic studies is somewhat based on that experience."
Moreover, the door is open to significantly higher future density along Brook Road after a recent zoning decision to raze historic structures in Oregon Hill in favor of development, Homer emphasizes. "We're feeling the pinch of growth," he says.
Both Gray and Homer say Stoney said he'd find a way to conduct an independent study. Gray claims this was even recorded at a Ginter Park Association meeting. Hilbert says council unanimously voted for a traffic study on the impact of development. Sixteen months later, the study hasn't materialized. On July 26, Hilbert and Gray renewed their call to the mayor.
City officials say they don't support any new studies because of cost — and because they don't wish to discuss the elephant anymore.
"An additional traffic study may cost about $35,000-$40,000, which is unnecessary, not funded and should be avoided," says an administration statement provided by the mayor's press secretary. "Also, requested 'study'… is a planning level study that includes historic preservation, schools, storm-water drainage and traffic impacts due to Westwood Tract development. Both the Board of Zoning Appeals and the [Circuit] Court found the [city's] approvals [of Westwood Tract] were legal and proper and the development was permitted and is currently under construction."
The statement goes on to cite a traffic analysis conducted by consultants Vanasse Hangen Brustlin in November 2015. Traffic flows were not found to be impeded by a new bike lane or new developments.
"The proposed [bike lane] design retains an excellent level of service during peak periods," officials say. "Department of Public Works believes that the Brook Road/Westwood Avenue intersection will operate at satisfactory level of service after this development."
Can taxpayers turn anywhere for a comprehensive third-party study in this scenario? Gray says it's important to note that taxpayers provide grant funds for Sports Backers, the parent entity of Bike Walk RVA.
"Bike Walk RVA is contracted to do this work on behalf of the citizens. They're not supposed to choose one side over another," she says. "They're supposed to educate and get information out there about Vision Zero."
Like the city, Bike Walk RVA says traffic flows will be fine, even for emergency vehicles. But Gray is hearing concerns directly from firefighters about the potential for increased response times. Bike Walk RVA also claims that traffic wouldn't be diverted onto parallel streets. This is another point of contention. Both residents and council members argue that traffic would be diverted and lower income Chamberlayne Avenue would likely carry a lot of it.
Businesses are requesting studies now, too. Near Brook Road and Webster Street, there are railroad tracks and industries. Light trucks, common in industrial zones, account for almost half of fatal bicycle collisions, according to the federal government.
Nevertheless, cycle enthusiasts are encouraging strong turnout Sept. 11.
"If this project doesn't work as intended, the paint and posts can be removed and Brook Road can be returned to its original state," says Louise Lockett, lead organizer with Bike Walk RVA. "We have the opportunity to try it on for size and see how it fits, but the proposed ordinance prohibiting the bike lane would remove that opportunity." S
Why this road?
Brook Road was identified as a major north-south corridor that could help fulfill Richmond's Strategic Multimodal Transportation Plan.
How much will it cost?
$1.3 million. Council member Kim Gray, who previously worked at the Virginia Department of Transportation, says it will take at least three to five years to receive the federal funding. According to Bike Walk RVA, the city has spent $85,000 on the project's design.
What are the concerns of Brook Road residents?
There are many. A prime concern is increased traffic from the planned development of the Westwood Tract, schools, industrial zones and future developments. This could impact biker safety, driveway access and emergency response times.
Didn't City Council unanimously vote for a new traffic study?
Yes, but the administration won't budge until someone comes up with $35,000-$40,000. Officials say council "did not acknowledge the true cost to conduct the study when it stated there will be 'no fiscal impact'." Gray and residents say the mayor previously agreed to an independent study, but has now changed course.
How would an ordinance create delay?
From Azalea Avenue to West Charity Street, new bike lanes would be prohibited and current lanes couldn't be converted.