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Boulevard and Eastside Projects Would Slow Traffic, Improve Bike Safety

If it can happen to Dick Field, it can happen to anyone.

Field and his wife, Susan, are active and well-known members of the community, so word spread quickly when a driver hit and seriously injured him while he was biking along Milledge Avenue. (Charges against the driver are pending, according to police spokesman Epifanio Rodriguez.)

“He was about as careful and prudent and visible a rider as you could imagine,” said Tyler Dewey, executive director of the advocacy group BikeAthens. “The fact that the crash happened, struck from behind, it’s a reminder that we have to provide safe, protected places for people to ride their bikes. These street designs have real stakes. People can get really hurt. So we have to decide if we want the fleeting, illusory convenience of being able to get somewhere a few seconds faster, or if we want lasting safety improvements.”

Dewey made those comments at last week’s Athens-Clarke County Commission agenda-setting meeting, where commissioners were debating bike infrastructure in Boulevard and on the Eastside.

In an effort to connect the Boulevard neighborhood to future mixed-use developments along Chase Street to the north and give industrial employees bike access to their workplaces, ACC officials temporarily striped bike lanes onto part of Chase Street last year, but the result was a traffic jam of trucks trying to get onto the Loop, so the changes were quickly reversed.

Instead, the Transportation and Public Works Department now wants to divert bikes from Chase to Barber Street. Plans call for a shared bike and pedestrian path along Barber, with connections to Chase via another shared path on Oneta Street and buffered bike lanes on ???. Meanwhile, three roundabouts—two at the Loop and one at Oneta—would slow down traffic as it enters the residential part of Chase while also preventing major backups behind trucks trying to turn left. With slower vehicle traffic, more confident cyclists would have the option of taking the lane on Chase as well.

“I think the Chase Street plan is great,” Tony Eubanks, co-founder of Complete Streets Athens, told commissioners. “We had the Chase Street plan on the fly a couple years ago, and it didn’t work.” But consultants Toole Design Group have done a great job of looking at the corridor holistically, he said.

Barnett Shoals already has bike lanes on the portion between Lexington and Gaines School roads, but they disappear at the Georgetown Square shopping center. Plans there call for a bike lane through the shopping center to College Station Road, which also has bike lanes. South of College Station, where vehicular traffic drops off, Barnett Shoals would narrow down to three lanes with a separated two-way bike path. That change could happen within the next year, if commissioners approve it, because that stretch of Barnett Shoals is scheduled to be repaved soon.

Dewey praised the plans for both the Chase Street area and Barnett Shoals. “They are plans for people, not for vehicle speed,” he said. “They are plans that look at the corridor as a place to move people first, not a way for cars to speed through to go to other places.”

But commissioners are likely to delay a decision, at least for another month. Mayor Nancy Denson had already pulled Barnett Shoals off the July 17 agenda to give staff more time to compile comments from a recent public hearing.

Several commissioners also expressed reservations about the Chase Street corridor plans. Commissioner Jerry NeSmith said he does business with companies on Oneta Street, and they “know nothing about this.”

Although it was discussed at several meetings and in the news, business owners were caught off-guard by the 2017 restriping. ACC eventually held a public hearing just for them, and “it was like a lynch mob,” Commissioner Jared Bailey recalled. A public hearing several months ago on the latest options drew a big crowd, but apparently no one from Chase-area industries attended, so Bailey suggested a special input session. Denson said she was concerned by the questions raised and might delay a scheduled Aug. 7 vote.

In other business:

• Sewer work around Lumpkin and Baxter streets is done, and as a planned repaving project gets underway, ACC and the University of Georgia are tweaking the intersection to accommodate the increased pedestrian traffic from the business-school buildings under construction there. UGA will be paying for most of the work, other than the repaving itself.

• ACC is set to award a contract next month to build a $2.4 million roundabout at South Milledge Avenue and Whitehall Road as part of SPLOST 2011.

• A decade in the works, an expansion of the ACC landfill onto land in Oglethorpe County is about to get underway. They’re cutting it close: The current landfill is expected to fill up by next August, and construction will take about a year.

• The commission’s Government Operations Committee has suggested some changes to the way the commission accepts public input, including requiring speakers to fill out comment cards beforehand so their correct name spellings can be recorded. Input would also be taken on zoning items at agenda-setting meetings as well as voting meetings. The committee has also recommended limiting commissioners’ comments at agenda-setting meetings to three five-minute opportunities to speak on each item, the same as at voting meetings. Discussion is currently unlimited at agenda-setting meetings.

• The Legislative Review Committee has recommended against passing a more restrictive youth curfew requested by the local chapter of the NAACP. Committee members said they don’t see a need for it.

• TPW is asking for permission to install a red-light camera at the intersection of U.S. Highway 29 and Hull Road, which sees an average of nearly four crashes a year as a result of drivers running red lights. It would join cameras at the West Broad Street-Alps Road-Hawthorne Avenue and Barnett Shoals-Gaines School Road intersections. Police issue $70 tickets to violators caught by the $300,000 cameras, but they’re hardly moneymakers; they’re intended to be a deterrent. And they work—there hasn’t been a red-light crash at the Broad-Alps-Hawthorne intersection in the past three years.

• The Classic Center is taking out a $1.3 million loan to hire a consultant to implement energy-saving measures like installing LED lights and replacing old equipment with more energy-efficient versions, reducing annual energy expenses by about $82,000–$124,000 a year over 15 years. Under state law, the cost savings are guaranteed—if the consultant doesn’t find enough ways to cover the cost, it eats the difference, but if the Classic Center saves more, it keeps the money. “It’s a guaranteed saving program, and one we all think will make a big difference going forward,” Classic Center Executive Director Paul Cramer said.

• The iris has been the official flower of Athens since 1946, but Keep Athens-Clarke County Beautiful, which has planted more than 100,000 daffodil bulbs in public spaces, has requested changing it to the daffodil. Commissioners will vote on a resolution Aug. 7.

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