The new year seemed like a new dawn for Seattle bicycling. The City Council was poised to pass the updated Bicycle Master Plan – an update so long-awaited and comprehensive it’s really a new plan; one that would make safe, comfortable cycling accessible to many more types of riders in many more parts of the city. After some jitters over candidate Ed Murray’s talk of a “balanced” transportation policy, which sounded like code for swinging the pendulum back to cars, and his fumbling and flipping on various bike issues, bicycle advocates were finally reassured that Murray isn’t anti-bike and is down with the plan.
This week city councilmembers and the newly installed Mayor Murray engaged in a bit of “After you, my dear Alphonse” over who should prepare a formal resolution for adoption: They expected him to do it (and perhaps tweak the plan), but his office insisted that since departing Mayor McGinn had already sent the plan to the Council, it was in their hands and they should go ahead on their own. So they will.
Riders, on your marks, get set…..Whoops.
Now the bike plan is on hold and under attack, blocked by a legal challenge from business and boat owners along one corridor — the section of Westlake Avenue N. fronting Lake Union. The challenge is, ironically, framed as an environmental one. The ad hoc Westlake Stakeholders Group contests the determination of environmental nonsignificance (DNS) that Seattle’s Department of Transportation issued for the bike plan, contending that big bike projects should undergo the same sort of environmental review as big rail and highway projects.
“I assume a $4 million infrastructure project [the city estimates $2.3 million] will cross the threshold [for SEPA review]," says Sierra Hansen, a public relations rep retained by the Westlake Stakeholders. Hansen is referring to a protected cycle track that the plan prescribes for the corridor. “And it’s not the only one. It’s going to be the first of many. There are a half-billion dollars of investments in that plan. They’re glossing over the environmental issues.”
Hansen adds that the cycle track should even be reviewed under the Shoreline Protection Act, since it will stray into the shoreline zone at some points. But the issues that actually concern the Westlake Stakeholders are more prosaic: parking spaces, vehicular access and safety.
The site in question is an unusual one – in effect, Seattle’s longest parking lot; a mile-and-a-half of city-owned frontage up to 100 feet wide between Westlake Ave. and the waterfront businesses. The Westlake Stakeholders’ notice of appeal complains that carving out a 10-foot wide cycle track will steal many of the strip’s 1,200 parking spaces, “used 24/7 by businesses, residents and patrons,” with no analysis of parking impacts. Sending cyclists zipping down the unobstructed track will inevitably inflict dangerous “conflicts” (read “collisions”) with cars, trucks and pedestrians trying to cross. These dangers will be compounded by increased truck traffic along Westlake, a designated freight corridor, once the waterfront tunnel is completed and Ballard-bound vehicles no longer exit Highway 99 onto Western Avenue.
Ergo, SDOT should prepare a full environmental impact statement, which would presumably gauge the impacts not just of this track, but of all the other 472 miles of bicycle tracks, trails, lanes and neighborhood greenways proposed under the plan. By the time that’s done, it might be time for a new update.
To the bicycle plan’s defenders, this claim, and complaints about the Westlake Cycle Track design, seem wildly premature and overblown. “It’s a big club these guys have taken at the master plan,” says Thomas Goldstein, the recently installed policy director of the Cascade Bicycle Club, which worked with SDOT to develop the plan. “For me there’s no problem putting a separated cycle track along that corridor. It would actually improve parking. The way the parking lot is set up is perfect for 1962” but badly outdated now – even though it was reconfigured, in what the Westlakers say was a successful collaboration with the city, just six years ago.
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