Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Planning Commission Hears Two Hours of Testimony; Keeps Hearing Open

Last night the Planning Commission heard a full two hours of mostly pro-walking and biking testimony. Pending approval from City legal, they kept the hearing open with the intent to have a worksession in December and to vote on a final recommendation in January.

After a worksession with City Council last week, the Planning Commission held a public hearing on the Bike and Walk Salem Plan in City Council chambers Tuesday night. The room was about a third full, and there was a steady stream of people going to the microphone.

By my count 19 people testified in favor, two testified with significant reservations (though not perhaps outright opposition), and one had no position other than to ask for the hearing to be kept open so his group could analyze the plan in more detail. A fourth spoke to oppose one particular project.

Doug passed out the text of his comments and argued that the three downtown routes of Union, Church, and Chemeketa streets were the most important and should be started immediately.

The issue for those with reservations was a classic property rights argument of the individual's autonomy to control "my property" against takings and the power of condemnation for the community. One person described a fence on his property and he seemed to suggest he might use it as a barrier against a path connection to a park adjacent to his property.

Commissioner Tom Gallagher was especially engaged with questions, and once referenced a son bicycling in Vancouver (BC or WA, was not clear). His questions seemed to me like those of someone interested in progress and with a realistic sense of compromise - that is to say, someone who could bridge differences and find a pragmatic path forward that represented substantive rather than superficial improvement. That was cheering. He also had some more difficult questions.

One question he had about a Union Street bike boulevard was, "Have you canvassed the business and property owners along Union?" As bike and transportation advocates, we have not always done a good job of lining up political support and neutralizing NIMBYism as best we could. So it was a fair question.

At the same time, it is not clear whether the City undertakes the same level of outreach when they wish to widen a street, going say from a two-lane cross section to a modern three-lane urban standard (with bike lanes, sidewalks, and turn pocket). So there are questions whether "transportation enhancements" like bike facilities are held to a different standard than road widening. The city regularly detaches property for public right-of-way on future road widening - can we not do this for bike facilities? (There's also the question of whether we actually need new ROW for bike facilities - maybe we just need to reallocate existing ROW.) So there might be a question about consistency.

It also seemed clear that walking and biking had not attained status as core forms of mobility, but still were "enhancements." Commissioner Gallagher, perhaps rhetorically, asked whether someone thought a bike bond measure might pass. Transportation means cars: Thinking of a complete street, whole-system, multi-modal system, funded by a range of sources and users, seems like it is still a stretch for many.

A representative from the Homebuilders Assocation wanted more time to analyze the findings and the impact on development. According to a recent piece in The Atlantic, access to a bike trail is worth $9000 in increased home value! Hopefully the City can use the opportunity to talk with the Homebuilders Association about about transportation costs, direct ones and externalized invisible ones, in development.

Speakers touched on a broad range of topics. Jeff talked about home budgets and the way that increasing bike transportation leaves discretionary income in the local community instead of going to car payments, car insurance, gasoline, and other largely non-local business. Susan talked about volkswalk and other walking tourism and visits from out-of-state guests and the importance of connecting parks in a greenway. Jen talked about social justice and the need for people who can't afford cars to have a low-cost transportation system that works. Curt talked about the ways his family of four uses bikes and the barriers especially along South Commercial that stand between bikes and business. Troy and Graham from Santiam Bicycle and Michael from South Salem Cycleworks talked about customers who fear to bike in Salem and about being a business owner impacted by transportation infrastructure, including sometimes the threat of condemnation. Alex talked about the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway. A junior-high and high-school teacher talked about his students.

People who have been in Salem for many years and seen several rounds of this kind of hearing for bikes suggested the turn-out was good, but not great. It was not overwhelming, and it will be useful to have a broader range of people attend - especially ladies and families! There were lots of the usual suspects - middle-aged men, principally, for whom biking was a choice. Younger people who bike and messenger fashion weren't visible. Nor were people of color or those who lacked cars and for whom biking was a necessity. Friends of Two Bridges and other walking or running advocacy groups were not represented, either. Business owners and neighborhood association representatives were few. No one from the collages, from Chemeketa or Willamette, who might have the largest user group for bikes. Same with the Hospital and public health interests. Even though the hearing was for a walking and biking plan, the audience was mostly men who bike.

(It will be interesting to learn more about the nature of the emailed, online survey, and other written comment.)

All in all it seemed like a good start. The downside of delay is that it could flush out more opposition and fear. The upside to delay is that more of Council and the Planning Commission will get involved and come to understand the issues, creating a deeper well of passion and momentum for genuine change. It might mean that fewer projects get started immediately, but it might also mean that the ones that do move will make swift and sure progress. In the current environment that might be a good trade-off.

Were you there? What did you think?

1 comment:

dfox said...

Eric, Thank you for the concise overview of last night's hearing. Many good points of support for the plan were brought to the table.
The hearing being left open for further review allows time to spread the word and get more folks involved in a balanced discussion about the effects and benefits of this plan.

While I was impressed by the number of people that testified, I would agree that the demographics represented could have been broader. With the additional time it might be possible to get representatives from Willamette University and Chemeketa to share the transportation options of their students.