NEWPORT -- City officials are organizing a meeting with state transportation officials to discuss the potential of making bike-friendly changes to the Route 9/AA Highway extension project set to begin late this spring.
Newport City Manager Thomas Fromme said the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet is “amenable” to meeting with bike and pedestrian advocates. More than 50 people concerned about the project crowded a Newport commission meeting this week.
But Fromme added that despite good intentions on all sides, it may be too late to alter the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet’s plans, which took shape years before community leaders drafted the Licking River Greenway Master Plan in 2008.
Newport bike shop owner and bike enthusiast Jason Reser recruited people to the meeting after he learned that what he sees as an outdated plan was set to begin construction this spring.
“We weren’t fully on top of it,” said Reser of the state’s current plan for Route 9’s extension.
Currently Route 9 weaves a stop-sign laden path through Newport’s west side. The plan to reconfigure it diverts residential traffic and allows faster access from Newport’s southern edge to the river in an effort to ease congestion and spur economic development on the riverfront.
The project includes sidewalks, but not crosswalks or bike infrastructure, which could put a major kink in the Licking River plan, which features an urban trail system that connects Wilder, Taylor Mill, Covington and Newport and leads to bridges across the Ohio River.
“It’s a very expensive roadway and this is going to be the only time to make sure it maximizes the investment,” Reser said. “You want to get it right the first time.”
Timing, Complexities Lead To Disconnect
Fromme said the state, which is funding the project, has spent more than decade on planning, engineering and property acquisition. When the process started in the early 2000s, Newport was a very different city.
“Very few people rode out along Route 9 on bicycles,” Fromme said.
Vision 2015, which spearheaded the Licking River Greenway Trail, didn’t even exist.
By the time regional planning efforts focused on trail development, the engineering for Route 9 was pretty much finished, Fromme said. “I think that’s where the disconnect was.”
Any changes at this point, with construction set to start within months, might do more than delay the long-awaited project. They might kill it.
For example, adding a bike path that widens the new road could add costs for acquiring right-of-ways as well as updated engineering plans, Fromme said. That would mean getting more funds allocated by the state legislature, which could take months, if not years.
“We have a responsibility at this point,” Fromme said. “If it’s gong to stall the project, it would be counterproductive.”
Reser and other bike advocates contend it’s not too late, or too expensive, to find a compromise that blends the two plans. They say any up-front costs incurred to include bike infrastructure will pay for themselves by increasing property values and attracting new residents and visitors to the city.
“It’s just going to draw in more investment,” said Reser, who opened Reser Bicycle Outfitters on Monmouth street 14 years ago, when the Newport Aquarium was new and the Peace Bell was “a big deal.” “It’s something the whole community benefits from.”
New Road, New Challenges
For Newport, the reconfiguration of Route 9 has been a long time coming. With state dollars now committed, Fromme sees the plan as an important boost for development on the city’s riverfront, including projects like Ovation.
“I look at Route 9 as a value to the whole community,” he said.
But that improved access for cars comes at a cost.
“The way the plan is right now is that it is a four-lane road—a straight shot,” said Nern Ostendorf, executive director of Queen City Bike, a non-profit, member-based bicycle advocacy organization. She attended the Newport commission meeting. “It doesn’t really give pedestrians a lot of access.”
With higher speed limits and fewer stops, the current plan poses physical and psychological barriers to pedestrians and recreational bike riders, she said. “It’s kind of like putting in train tracks.”
It also creates a barrier to connecting bike paths in Kentucky and Ohio.
“The way that we think of these regional bike trails is that they are bicycle highways,” Ostendorf said. With the existing plan, “a critical link might be missed. It will be really hard to work around.”
No Simple Solutions
In search of a compromise, Reser developed three alternatives for the Route 9 project—extending the pavement for walking or biking on one side, adding bike lines in the road or adding a separate bike path next to the sidewalk.
“I think any of those can work,” Reser said. “It seems like it could better serve the community.”
Fromme, who lives in Newport’s East Row, appreciates that the city has become much more multi-modal in the last decade, but said options for updating the project are both complicated and limited.
“We would be in favor of anything that would promote biking as long as it didn’t threaten the project,” he said. “At this point in time, our power is pretty limited. Ultimately, it’s the state’s baby.”
After positive feedback from the commission meeting and shows of support from local business owners and residents, Reser looks forward to meeting with representatives from the state.
“We want to do whatever we can to help them make it better,” he said.