“I’m sick of hearing about Prince Avenue.” One of our commissioners was quoted as saying that last week, and the general rap is that those who are pushing for traffic calming on Prince are pushing too hard, too fast. The mayor wants them to slow down. What’s the hurry? Prince isn’t going to be resurfaced for four or five more years, so why study it now?
You may be sick of hearing about Prince Avenue, too. You may live over on the Eastside, where your thoroughfare is the five-lane Barnett Shoals Road. Y’all had a big battle a decade ago with the same issues as Prince faces now: whether to figure pedestrians into the traffic mix. Pedestrians were eliminated. It’s an auto-centric world over there, and you wouldn’t want to send your kid to the store for a loaf of bread. Safe Routes to School aren’t. It’s the suburban model. Drive.
All our major streets have their own characteristics. Lumpkin was fairly recently reworked into a three-lane configuration with ample bike lanes, and traffic moves along well, even with a lot of UGA buses. Milledge is three-lane with no bike lanes, and it seems more sluggish than Lumpkin. And then there’s Hawthorne, with those traffic lights and weird lanes running up to the interminable wait at the Atlanta Highway—the street that gives three-laning a bad name everywhere. Hawthorne’s “bike lanes” are little three-foot afterthoughts that seal the case against the street. Hawthorne went from a narrow, four-lane racetrack to a slowed-down feeder into a bottleneck, making most people remember the racetrack with nostalgia.
Prince Avenue has its own personality. The overriding conundrum on Prince is that it brings us into town—to jobs, to doctors’ offices, to schools, to churches, to shops and stores, to restaurants and bars, to downtown and the university—and we’re usually in a hurry. And, as we all know, Prince also happens to run right smack-dab through a large intown, walkable, bikeable neighborhood, the kind of area that makes Athens so attractive to those who prefer to live close-in instead of far-out, the kind of neighborhood that makes people glad to move here, glad they can walk to the book store, the hairdresser, the co-op, the restaurant, the school.
Our common-sense mayor says “What’s the hurry?” Our commissioner is “sick of hearing about Prince Avenue.” Our citizen advocates want a trial with traffic-calming devices to get some data on how well a new configuration would work, but the mayor has killed that idea.
There’s another oddity to Prince Avenue’s personality, though. It is a local street from Athens Blueprint to Dunkin Donuts. That’s the stretch where the mayor killed the traffic study. But from Milledge on out through Normaltown and beyond, Prince Avenue is a state highway under the control of the Georgia Department of Transportation. Come to find out, GDOT is ready to do its own study of its own portion of Prince Avenue to see what the street might need in upgrades to its driveability, bikeability and walkability. And the state asks only a minimal assist from the city. Is it possible that the mayor might withhold even that cooperation and thus kill the state study, too?
It’s possible. It’s the way she works—behind the scenes. It’s the way she killed the River District initiative to pave the way for Walmart. It’s the way she has worked so far on Prince Avenue. It’s the way she can kill the state traffic study, with just a word to the city manager. The commission won’t even have to think about Prince, much less vote on whether we need a traffic study. And, of course, you know, the commission represents the people—when it gets the chance.
But the mayor works behind the scenes, guided by her own common sense, without involving us in the decision. We used to have that kind of government in Athens, and with Mayor Denson, it has come back. It’s Chris Christie government, except that in this case a real traffic study gets killed behind the scenes.
Would we be better off with an inexperienced guy as mayor, one who is all about open government and including everybody in on the discussion? Could be. The commission would go overnight from being a bypassed rubber stamp to having the real power to enact or refuse the mayor’s initiatives. With a mayor who doesn’t operate behind the scenes, all public decisions would go through the commission.
So, this discussion is not just about Prince Avenue. It’s about how we conduct the people’s business in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia. It’s about coming out from behind closed doors and making public decisions in public. It’s about democracy.