Weeks after cycling and multi-modal transit advocates objected vehemently to the news the Baltimore Department of Transportation plans to allocate zero new dollars for bike lane projects in fiscal 2020, and far less than originally planned for the next couple years, DOT appears to be sticking to its guns.
A plan presented to Baltimore’s Planning Commission Thursday afternoon indicates DOT has budgeted a doughnut ($0) for cycling infrastructure next fiscal year, $720,000 for fiscal 2021 and $788,000 for fiscal 2022. Through 2025, the agency has set aside enough to fund a total of about 16 road miles of lanes–and some of those projects aren’t even new, given that they were originally scheduled for completion by the end of 2017, or involve tweaking existing facilities like the Maryland Avenue Cycle Track, rather than new construction.
The plan for 2020-2022 strongly contrasts with the original timeline for Baltimore’s long-awaited Separated Bike Lane Network, which at full implementation is supposed to include 77 miles of infrastructure, with roughly $5 million per year (or $27 million total) in combined local, state and federal funds spent.
Critics lament that DOT is leaving state and federal dollars on the table. If the department earmarks or obtains $1 million in funding, it can then receive matching funds from state and federal sources. If they don’t hit that mark, there is no match.
The Separated Bike Lane Network plan began in 2018 and extends through 2022, meaning a fifth of it should have already been built, Bikemore policy director Jed Weeks said.
“We are gonna spend six years to build 16 miles”—some of that includes maintenance on pre-existing lanes, he pointed out–“which is less than what we’re supposed to do per year in the plan that this commission adopted,” he told the Planning Commission on Thursday.
DOT Director Michelle Pourciau did note her department plans to spend $2.25 million of previously allocated city money and grand funds on projects in fiscal 2020. “And so, more or less, there are no new projects, but [future] projects are evolving,” she said.
Cyclists and advocates argue DOT has reneged further on a commitment to making Baltimore a more multi-modal and pedestrian-friendly city. The budget issues come about two months after Mayor Catherine Pugh enacted Councilman Ryan Dorsey’s nationally recognized Complete Streets law committing Baltimore to a more pedestrian-friendly road framework. It’s also happening as the city’s top bike-planning staffer is leaving for a job in Boston, citing “a work environment of bullying, intimidation, and outright harassment, originating from the highest level of leadership” at DOT.
At the meeting Thursday, Pourciau and Deputy DOT Director Theo Ngongang-Ouandji explained they’re looking to re-work how the city goes about scheduling and funding cycling infrastructure projects.
In the past DOT has first applied for grant funding to kick off a project before hashing out its design with stakeholders and securing full funding for its implementation, but Ngongang-Ouandji said that’s generated delays for installing cycle tracks, boulevards and other infrastructure.
Moving forward, DOT plans to restructure the process by first designing a project, with input coming early from officials and community stakeholders, before applying for grants and setting aside the funds for installation.
“I must tell you, I really heard loud and clear that we shouldn’t have plans that we’re not implementing,” Pourciau said. Their hope is to “get out of the box we’re in,” she said, referring to years’ worth of delayed projects.
But going all of 2020 without any funding or plans for new cycling infrastructure holds no appeal to cycling advocates. A handful of them testified yesterday that if the city doesn’t work to get back on track with the originally planned schedule, it’ll be turning its back on not just current residents, but future generations. Cyclists and their families will move out of the city, and automobiles will be free to continue dominating roads while putting more pedestrians at risk, they argued.
Eleni Giorgos of Hampden told the commission that beyond making life easier for cyclists, having robust bike infrastructure would get more people out of cars and reduce auto emissions, and free up space along roads for the handicapped, as well as pedestrians and growing numbers of scooter riders.
“Bike lanes benefit more than just the people who ride in them,” she said.
Kyle Fritz, a cyclist who lives in Harwood and works on self-driving car technology for Uber, said he often travels to the company’s offices in San Francisco and Pittsburgh—places that have adapted their roads for cyclists better than Baltimore has.
“In both of these growing cities, their DOT makes bicycle infrastructure a priority and undertakes these projects in good faith,” he said, later adding: “It’s ridiculous that DOT ignored this from their budget.”
Bikemore executive director Liz Cornish sought to make a statement on the overwhelming support for pedestrian-friendly infrastructure by listing out more than four dozen Baltimore organizations, neighborhood associations and businesses that wrote letters of support for Dorsey’s Complete Streets law.
“How many Baltimore residents and elected officials expressing their desire for a city that prioritizes the safety of people over the convenience of cars is it going to take to see a [Capital Improvement Program] that reflects their interests?” she posed.
Jon Laria, a local attorney for Baltimore Spahr who Mayor Catherine Pugh appointed chair of her Bicycle Advisory Commission, lauded DOT for moving some funds around since the last Capital Improvement Program hearing, but nonetheless said DOT’s presented numbers are “not enough. It’s too cautious, it’s too slow.”
The cycling infrastructure budget plan isn’t a done deal at this point. Planning Commission member Davon Barbour said they’ll meet again to discuss the CIP on Feb. 21. The final vote on it will be March 7.
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