Del. Robbyn Lewis is among the many Baltimoreans who won’t soon forget Gov. Larry Hogan’s 2015 veto of the Red Line. Beyond abandoning a project to bridge geographically and racially segregated Baltimore, the governor also returned $900 million in federal funds—a move federal officials will remember when deciding what checks to write, Lewis said.
“It will be a long time before the Federal Transit Administration approves large transit infrastructure money for Maryland,” Lewis, who’s among the three delegates representing District 46, grimly predicted. “The feds don’t forget that.”
She worries Baltimore City is now running a similar risk with federal and state funds for cycling and multimodal infrastructure. Today, a Department of Transportation-hired contractor is set to repaint part of a protected bike lane along E. Monument Street, leaving the eastbound path intact while redirecting westbound users to the sidewalk. The modification will restore about a dozen street parking spaces in front of Fountain Baptist Church at 1215 E. Monument St.
DOT is making these changes at Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s behest. Young’s spokesman Lester Davis said Tuesday they requested the alteration after hearing from “senior citizens and other members of this this community,” who complained to the mayor they weren’t considered when the lane was installed in 2018, and wanted their spots back.
“Finding a way to return parking for our senior population became our top priority,” Davis wrote in an emailed statement. “Our second priority was to maintain the bike lane without removing it.” The planned modification is a compromise, he said.
While Davis made no mention of the church, Lewis wrote a letter to Young—which she shared on Twitter Tuesday morning—mentioning that the mayor relayed the concerns of Fountain Baptist Church members.
She also said Young suggested to her that cycling infrastructure is “not a concern of African American people,” a notion she strongly protests, pointing to a number of black users she’s seen navigating Monument Street just this week. (Young countered he said no such thing; Lewis maintains he did.)
The delegate told Baltimore Fishbowl that she had appealed to the mayor in hopes of arranging a meeting between neighbors (including churchgoers), the mayor’s office, cycling advocates and others, when “it was still enough time to halt the order” modifying the lane.
“My offer wasn’t accepted,” she said. “Naturally I felt disappointed, and in the meantime I’m also concerned about all the reverberating implications of the order, of the insistence on deconstructing the lane. It’s not just about the convenience or inconvenience of the directly impacted folks… It has impacts for Baltimore City’s ability, broadly, to secure financing for transportation.”
Lewis has since met with the board of the church, whose members she said “deserve respect.” However, they could not come to an agreement about the bike lane, she said.
Baltimore in 2017 adopted an addendum to its 2015 Bike Master Plan for a full separated bike lane network catering to car-less commuters across the city. Officials originally committed to spending at least $1 million annually to build out the lane network, and planned to seek matching state and federal funds from the Maryland Department of Transportation’s Bikeways initiative and federal Transportation Alternatives Program, or TAP.
But the city has backed off of its commitment in its Capital Improvement Program funds for 2020-2025, advocates complained this winter. To the ire of multimodal transportation boosters, once-earmarked funds for the bike lane network were cut from the six-year budget plans, which would leave Baltimore ineligible for those matching funds for years at a time.
Jed Weeks, policy director for the cycling advocacy group Bikemore, said DOT has not shared any updates since about the plans for 2020-2025. A version of the Capital Improvement Program budget posted online indicates the city plans to spend no new money on cycling infrastructure.
The Maryland Department of Transportation, which administers TAP funds, said the city was awarded $542,150 total in Bikeways grants in fiscal 2017, 2018 and 2019, as well as $250,000 in promised TAP funding in fiscal 2018.
However, MDOT spokeswoman Erin Henson added, “To be clear, Baltimore City has not received any of these funds to date.”
That’s because the state reimburses the city only after it’s completed a project and has sent along an invoice requesting reimbursement. For the projects that netted the city those promised grants, the city “has not sent any invoices or requested reimbursement to date,” Henson said.
With that caveat, available state announcements point to a recent acute drop in the last couple years for promised Bikeways funding, with $310,850 in grants awarded for projects in fiscal 2016 and $312,230 in fiscal 2017, compared to $70,000 in fiscal 2018 and $159,920 in fiscal 2019.
Lewis pointed to other bike lane projects the city has walked back or delayed substantially, including the much–fussed–over Roland Avenue cycle track. The North Baltimore lane was installed as part of a multi-million-dollar traffic-calming project several years ago, and was recently repainted to restore curbside parking for residents who complained. Bikemore said the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Commission pegged the cost of that work at “at least $140,000.”
There’s also been slow progress on the Downtown Bike Network, originally slated to be finished in 2017. DOT has said it should be done this summer, though a number of sections are still incomplete, including a whole portion on Madison Street.
Weeks, of Bikemore, also highlights the delayed installation of a bike boulevard on Covington Street below Federal Hill, other boulevards planned for West Baltimore and additional examples.
Lewis worries the pattern of delays and alterations–even small ones like those being made to Monument Street–further put federal and state dollars in jeopardy.
“I’ve heard through channels that even Maryland DOT is looking sideways at any request from Baltimore for bike and pedestrian infrastructure,” she said, “and I don’t blame them.”
And she laments that the city is spending more on removing, rather than adding to, its network of multimodal transportation infrastructure.
For the newest modifications, which basically include repainting part of about half a block of Monument Street, there’s been some confusion about how much they will cost. Lewis and cycling advocacy group Bikemore at first said officials pegged the cost at around $50,000, but DOT said today that it’s actually “less than $10,000.” Bikemore executive director Liz Cornish said officials at a meeting of the Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Commission on Wednesday had since revised the cost estimate to around that amount.
Lewis acknowledged the modifications to Monument Street are of a “much smaller scale than the Red Line obviously, but a federal dollar is a federal dollar.”
Cornish said this latest case on Monument Street points to a problematic trend of officials reacting to some neighbors’–not all, she points out–complaints as soon as new infrastructure disrupts the status quo of Baltimore’s car-favoring streets.
“Community input is valuable and important, and it should be taken into consideration, but it shouldn’t be taken into consideration to the point where we are making streets less safe for the most vulnerable users,” she said.
Lewis knows Baltimore isn’t alone in reconsidering designs for bike lanes. Other cities like New York and Seattle have gone through the trial-and-error process of installing such infrastructure, only to modify or remove it after neighbors dispute its functionality. But Baltimore stands alone in its degree of resistance to introducing such infrastructure in the first place, she argued.
“I don’t think any other major city has shown this level of schizophrenia and irresponsibility when it comes to expanding safe and healthy mobility options for its own citizens,” Lewis said. “We’re famous for this at this point.”
Looking ahead, she said the city has “got to get this right” for Baltimoreans who lack access to cars. “This is bigger than bikes. This is a civil rights matter, this is a public health matter, and it’s a fiscal matter for the city. And with all the challenges we have, it’s something with very little effort we could actually get right.”
This story has been updated.
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