The battle against narrowing Cascade Avenue suffered a major setback in El Paso County District Court Wednesday, July 18 when 4th Judicial District Judge David A. Gilbert declined to make a temporary restraining order against the city permanent. His verdict is still open to appeal.
The ruling allows the city to proceed with re-striping Cascade from Fillmore to downtown to remove one vehicle traffic lane in each direction and replace them with buffered bicycle lanes, some parking and a reduction in the number of crosswalks at Colorado College from 4 to 2.
The plan isn’t a new one. Colorado College, through which Cascade passes, presented the idea in 2008 and the city traffic manager, Kathleen Krager did so again in 2016.
Skip Morgan, attorney for the Old North End Neighborhood (ONEN) plaintiffs said, “In both cases the planning Commission and the city council voted it down. The traffic manager now in 2018 says ‘I didn’t need their approval, I’m just going to do it.’”
“What we’re looking for here is just for an order requiring them to go through the public process and to allow the people to have a voice, and that means going to the planning commission or the city council,” he continued.
Krager testified that her appearance before the Planning Commission in 2016 wasn’t obligatory. “I went more as a courtesy more than anything else,” she said.
Now Mayor Suthers appears to be flexing his executive branch muscles. In what Morgan called a “celebrity appearance” lasting “about five minutes” he said, “Mayor Suthers told the court Tuesday that citizens have no recourse, the court has no jurisdiction and that the case should be dismissed.”
Attorneys representing the city stepped through the applicable sections of the city Charter and code and in the end convinced the judge that re-striping is not a major change to the classification of Cascade as a minor arterial and is not a major change to the ONEN Master Plan cited frequently by Morgan as requiring planning commission review.
The judge also accepted the city’s argument that master plans are advisory and are not ordinances, but rather are non-binding resolutions that the city is free to disregard at will.
Because the paint can be easily changed, and because the power to direct striping of city streets is “firmly within the bounds of the authority of the Traffic Manager,” Judge Gilbert dissolved the temporary injunction and declined to issue a permanent injunction against the project. Plaintiffs have not yet announced if they will appeal the ruling.
Safety trumped traffic concerns, but questions remain
In justifying her decision to create bike lanes and reduce vehicle lanes based on pedestrian safety Krager said that traffic engineering is half engineering and half psychology. “It’s easier to tell an 8-year-old than an 18-year-old to press the button and wait for the light,” she said.
She testified that pedestrians and vehicle drivers both have been trained to ignore each other thanks to the city’s and Colorado College’s traffic safety efforts.
“It’s not their fault, it’s the city’s fault” that college students looking at their cell phones walk out into traffic she said. “they put in flashing lights,” Krager continued, “We have trained pedestrians that they don’t have to look for traffic.”
She said that drivers have also been trained to ignore the flashing lights because they stay on for a long time even when there are no pedestrians in the crosswalk.
Despite her statement that college kids are so wrapped up in their cellphones that they don’t pay attention to where they are, Krager blamed drivers for the 12 bicycle and 12 pedestrian accidents on Cascade since 2000. “A pedestrian accident is much more likely to be a driver’s fault,” she said.
Krager said she was never asked if Cascade should be narrowed, she was asked how to provide for the safety of pedestrians. “Narrowing was one option,” she said, “I have to provide something different, otherwise I haven’t retrained either pedestrians or motorists.”
Underpasses and overpasses were rejected
But she rejected the idea of an underpass or an overpass that would completely separate pedestrians from traffic, saying in her testimony, “I do not believe an overpass or underpass is justified there. I don’t believe it would work without major changes to the CC campus.” She testified that her concern was “not aesthetics, (but) functionality.”
Morgan pointed out that an underpass at College and Broadway near the University of Colorado campus in in Boulder built to address exactly the same sort of problem works well. He went on to say that Colorado College had previously agreed to pay for such a structure.
“So, an underpass would solve Colorado College’s problem and would be paid for by Colorado College and would have no impact upon traffic or the neighborhood, true?” he asked.
Krager did not agree that Boulder’s situation supported an underpass here. She said the much higher traffic volumes in Boulder, “make it work because it has to work.”
“It would be CC’s problem if you can imagine the campus with ramps that extend from Nevada to Uinta and then also having to fence off Cascade on either side to assure that people are really using the overpass, that’s a pretty significant impact,” Krager replied.
“The problem is that they need to meet ADA requirements that would require very long ramps for overpasses and underpasses to be effective,” she said, “To accomplish that would mean fencing off the area.”
But then referring specifically to the aesthetics rather than safety Krager said of Colorado College, “It is a jewel for the city and I don’t think a chain link fence is exactly the look that the city was looking for at Colorado College.”
Morgan pointed out that other more aesthetically pleasing barriers to direct people to the underpass exist. In Boulder low walls and planters in the median are used.
While much more expensive than re-striping and attended with engineering difficulties thanks to underground utilities, an underpass would solve the pedestrian safety problem without narrowing Cascade said a witness for the plaintiffs.
Retired Air Force Gen. David Swint, a registered professional engineer, one of the plaintiffs and an ONEN resident living on Cascade testified that he presented such a plan to Colorado College in 2013 for an underpass with ADA-approved ramps parallel to the roadway.
“I’m dumbfounded as to why a study has not been made of an overpass and an underpass. They would clearly decouple pedestrians and vehicle,” Swint said.
Ulterior motives may exist
One thing not mentioned in testimony regarding an underpass is that building one is not something Krager can do on her own authority like she can with painting road stripes.
Such a project would have to be submitted to both the Planning Commission and the City Council for approval, even if CC were still willing to foot the bill.
The current re-striping plan bypasses the legislative branch entirely and is done under the Mayor’s executive authority, and according to Mayor Suthers’ testimony is not subject to either legislative or judicial review.
Of this claim, said Morgan, “There is no forum, no tribunal, no neutral body left to say this is wrong.”
Not mentioned in court is that in addition to tangible safety benefits, providing bicycle lanes and increasing congestion on neighborhood streets by reducing capacity helps to forward another agenda Krager favors: Travel mode shifting.
In a 2015 Power Point presentation to the Infill Steering Committee Krager posited “Why traffic congestion is good.” Her answers were “It increases other modes of transportation” and “It creates a Buzz.”
Travel mode shifting is the process of encouraging people not to use single-occupant vehicles and instead walk, bike, carpool and use public transit instead. One of the methods of gaining compliance is by making it inconvenient and slow to use cars.
It’s all part of “road dieting.” The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) says, “A Road Diet is generally described as removing vehicle lanes from a roadway and reallocating the extra space for other uses or traveling modes, such as parking, sidewalks, bicycle lanes, transit use, turn lanes, medians or pedestrian refuge islands.”
Quality of life improvements and being more “bike friendly” are intangible benefits often cited as justification for road dieting, which can take many different physical forms including transit pull-outs, center turn lanes and parking, which psychologically helps slow traffic.
According to the FHWA website on road dieting, in Grand Rapids, Mich., road dieting on Division street markedly reduced head-on left-turn, angle and side-swipe auto collisions, but rear-end accidents tripled. The length of queues of stopped vehicles during rush hours that more than doubled, slower travel times, increases in air pollution and diversions onto other streets were all negative impacts that occurred with the lane reduction in Grand Rapids.
But road dieting has been adopted widely across the nation and 4-lane streets and roads are quickly giving way to 2-lane streets with parking, bike lanes and center turn lanes in many places.
Strong mayors have broad authority to buck legislative bureaucracy
There is little doubt that the safety and livability aspects of road dieting provide a significant degree of additional safety for everyone and convenience for bicyclists, but it comes at the cost of slower speeds and greater congestion for automobile drivers. That is evidently what Krager has in mind.
One of the reasons Colorado Springs voters decided to enact the strong mayor system of government was because of the interminable bickering and delays introduced by warring factions on the City Council. The power of the Mayor to get things done without endless reviews was a major selling point.
The structure of the “strong mayor” system and the specific authority granted to the traffic manager make it easy and relatively cheap for the city to experiment with road dieting without committing to expensive road redesign. Krager believes that people will quickly get used to it and will see the benefits.
But even Katherine Brady, Senior Bicycle Planner for the city admitted that with this sort of plenary executive power the shoe can just as easily be on the other foot.
When asked if an “evil traffic planner” in the future decided to eliminate the bike lanes, would she like to have the planning commission and council consider it she said, “I would like to see it considered.”
Asked, “If the planning commission upheld the bike lanes and the traffic manager said, ‘I’m going to do it anyway,’ would you be disappointed?”
“Sure,” she said.