Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO.
CINCINNATI -- A long-overdue glimmer of hope flickered Monday when City Council's Budget and Finance Committee approved an amendment to the mayor and city manager's proposed budget for 2019 -- one that restored funding to some bike projects that were on the chopping block.
"Long overdue" might be underselling it, especially when it comes to the beleaguered Central Parkway Protected Bike Lanes. Since crews installed the bikeway's first phase in 2014, it has sat unfinished and faced multiple attempts to remove it altogether.
This council is poised to change that direction, and it should. The committee took a step by restoring funding for the bike lanes, and now it's up to the full council to follow suit.
The most recent threat to the lanes' progress came as a sort of double-whammy. First, the city administration announced it had applied for two Transportation Alternative grants, awarded by the federal government -- one for Central Parkway and the other for the Wasson Way mixed-use trail. But acting City Manager Patrick Duhaney said in a May 31 memo that, if the local matching funds were not found by the end of June, his office would pull the applications from consideration.
It was a tall order during a grim budget season, when the city stared down a $34 million budget deficit. Then came Mayor John Cranley's recommended adjustments to Duhaney's proposed budget for fiscal year 2019 -- which suggested a $150,000 reduction in spending on the city's bicycle transportation plan.
Is it a coincidence that the cut to bike program spending is only slightly more than the Central Parkway bike lanes' required $125,000 match? The Wasson Way trail was conspicuously absent among the bike programs cuts. In fact, the budget proposal has $750,000 set aside specifically for that construction.
I'll leave it for readers to draw their own conclusions, but the mayor has been a vocal supporter of the Wasson Way project, and he's never hidden his opposition to the protected bike lanes. In a statement for a June 19 WCPO report, Cranley's spokesperson, Holly Stutz-Smith said, "The mayor opposes the Central Parkway bike lane as configured because nobody rides it, and it's not safe."
That rationale doesn't really hold water, though.
Consider that, as of 2015, still less than 10 percent of the region's commuters traveled in anything other than a single-occupant vehicle, according to census data. It's no wonder that bike commuters are a rare sight on the bike lanes: They're still a relatively rare sight everywhere else in the city, too.
As for safety -- as WCPO has previously reported, there is no evidence that more crashes occur on Central Parkway after the bike lanes were installed than before , according to crash data compiled by the city's Department of Transportation and Engineering.
To their credit, transportation officials did not want to submit the applications without finding the local matches first -- out of fiscal responsibility. The grant money for the bike lanes wouldn't become available until 2022, a year when interim DOTE director Don Gindling said funding for projects like this will be "pretty dismal."
Gindling described capital spending after 2020 in a series of emails obtained by WCPO. "Our capital outlook for 2021 and 2022 is pretty dismal we can't squeeze both projects in and I don't want to apply for something we won't be able to accept (sic)," Gindling wrote.
But is that really a reason not to apply?
In a June 13 email to members of City Council, Eric Oberg with the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy said applying for grants before securing the local match is common practice.
"Both of the applications are for funding in 2022 leaving the city and partners much more time to find local match funding to leverage the federal money," Oberg wrote. "There is a history of working in this manner and it is a common practice throughout Ohio and in other states."
And it's not just that the money is there. It's also about providing access across the city's socioeconomic spectrum.
"I do not have to point out to you however that Wasson Way does indeed go through more affluent parts of Cincinnati," Oberg wrote. "The benefits of active transportation cannot, and should not, be only for our wealthier communities. The Central Parkway protected bike lanes will vastly improve cycling conditions in neighborhoods that lack the investment others have been getting."
As for connecting neighborhoods, several stand to benefit from the bike lanes' extension -- as their current design has them stretching all the way from Downtown to Ludlow Avenue.
In May 2017, Clifton Town Meeting passed a resolution calling on the city to complete the second and third phases of the bike lanes.
"Currently, the Central Parkway bike lanes extend only from Downtown to Marshall Avenue," wrote Eric Urbas, CTM president. "Completing the project as originally envisioned would allow residents of Clifton, Northside, Camp Washington, CUF, and Avondale to directly access the Central Parkway bike lane and Downtown from main corridors such as Ludlow Avenue and MLK Boulevard."
The Central Parkway bike lanes' impact goes beyond the city's urban core. It stands to connect some of the region's biggest and longest trails, according to Tri-State Trails Director Wade Johnston.
In a June 18 email to City Council, Johnston wrote, "When complete, Central Parkway Phase 2 will connect three major regional trail corridors in development: Ohio River Trail at Sawyer Point, Uptown Connector Trail at MLK Drive / Hopple Street, and Mill Creek Greenway Trail in Northside."
Because the Ohio River Trail will soon connect Downtown to Anderson Township and eventually the Little Miami Trail, which extends even farther into the state, the Central Parkway Protected Bike Lanes stand to be a critical connection between the region's southeast and northwest corners.
And on top of all of these reasons for finishing the bike lanes, another one lingers: City Council committed to this project more than five years ago. It seems it will take a new council to finish what their predecessors started.