No bike lanes for North Mercer

By Ruth Longoria

City Council rejects Sound Transit plan for 5-foot bike lanes near Park and Ride Between 900 and 1,500 bicyclists pedal along North Mercer Way on an average weekend and about 500 bicycle commuters make the trip on a week day, according to Sound Transit statistics.

That makes for a fairly steady stream of spokes and sweat.

But, whether the bicyclists ride for exercise or to get from point A to point B, cycle enthusiasts may soon have to detour through point C -- in this case S.E. 24th Street -- following the City Council's recent vote to pass on Sound Transit's Mercer Way bike lane design proposal.

Tempers flared and voices were raised in hot debate last week as council members argued between themselves and Sound Transit representatives concerning safety, roadway capacity and ways to minimize traffic conflict.

"Can you please explain to me how it improves safety and minimizes conflict?" Councilman Sven Goldmanis asked of the proposed plan that would have added 5-foot bike lanes on the outside edge of two 11-foot automobile lanes.

According to the plan -- which would have reconfigured North Mercer Way between S.E. 77th and 80th streets -- bicyclists would have had to cross two intersections, both of which do not have traffic lights. Buses also would have had to cross the bike lane to pull to the curb and pick up or drop off passengers.

"It's the duty of the bus driver to look for anything adjacent to or behind them," said Erick Beckman, Sound Transit Capital Projects Department project manager, who presented the plan to the council.

This wasn't the first time Sound Transit officials and council members have discussed traffic concerns near the Island's Park & Ride. Previously, after less vociferous debates, the council asked consultants to look at the issue and suggest the best possible plan to insure the safety of pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

When Sound Transit representatives asked for public comment, residents near S.E. 24th Street opposed adding more bicycle traffic to their neighborhood.

At the request of City Manager Rich Conrad, transit designers also researched constructing a tunnel for cyclists. But the 1,000-foot tunnel would cost $5 million, Beckman said.

"I'm struck by the notion that we've twice sent professional consultants, engineers and traffic planners to think about this," said Mayor Alan Merkle, who, along with Councilmember Jim Pearman, voted to approve Sound Transit's design. "They all say this is the safest, and the neighborhoods say, No' (to rerouting the cyclists onto S.E. 24th Street ) ... When the bicyclists and professionals say this is best, it's very persuasive to me," Merkle said.

But Council members Dan Grausz, Steve Litzow and Goldmanis weren't convinced the proposed plan was best for the Island. Deputy Mayor Bryan Cairns abstained from voting.

"My position is: Leave it as it is and make people dismount from their bikes as they pass through there," Cairns said.

Despite council recommendations and proposed roadway signage, bicyclists aren't likely to detour up S.E. 24th Street, Pearman said, in defense of his vote for Sound Transit's plan.

"You're fighting against human nature. People are commuting, they're concerned with time and the most expeditious route," Pearman said.

Goldmanis responded: "When you say human nature, I can understand that, but this is not Hong Kong or Bangkok, I can tell you that."

Sending the cyclists through a residential neighborhood makes sense for safety and traffic reasons, Goldmanis said.

"Bicyclists are non-polluting,, quiet, and they go through in daytime hours, there shouldn't be problems for the residents," he said.

Sound Transit won't fund or participate in a plan other than their proposal, Beckman told the council.

Beckman's comment angered some council members, including Goldmanis and Grausz.

"I take exception to that," Goldmanis said.

Grausz added: "You're waving a red flag in front of the council."

"You said (rerouting) was an option and then just because you don't agree with it -- Give me a break," Grausz said. "That's ridiculous!"

Plans to redirect bicycle traffic on S.E. 24th Street and create a new bike path that would connect existing trails through Luther Burbank Park to the new community center and Town Center probably won't begin until expansion of the Park & Ride is completed, in 2006, Grausz said after the meeting.

"It could occur sooner than later, but there's no money in this year's budget," he said. "Reasonably, I think you could see this happen in 2006."

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