A Baltimore City plan to install a protected cycle track northbound and southbound on Roland Avenue as part of a $3.9 million repaving project is dividing the community.
Residents are at odds over issues including potential safety, loss of parking and a perceived lack of communication by the city in alerting and explaining the plan for the cycle track, which would be the first in the city.
An estimated 200 residents packed a multipurpose room of Roland Park Presbyterian Church for an often contentious meeting of the Roland Park Civic League on Wednesday night.
President Chris McSherry was out of town at a family graduation but sent a letter inviting people to the meeting and citing "all sorts of rumors and incorrect information" about the cycle track. McSherry also stated in the "Dear Neighbors" letter that the civic league agreed to a cycle track because it is called for in the city's bicycling master plan, would promote alternatives to driving, and would be safe.
At the meeting, a contingent of officials of the Baltimore City Department of Transportation updated residents on the cycle track project, which is set to start this month with striping and placement of at least 150 "flex posts" to delineate the special bike lanes. Transportation officials said they expect the cycle track to be finished by next March.
But DOT officials refused to budge on demands from many in the audience to rethink the plans.
"The project is going to move forward," Veronica McBeth, transit bureau chief, said early on in the meeting, drawing applause from about half of the standing-room-only crowd, and shouts of anger from the other half. "We did all the necessary things to make sure that the project happened in the right way," McBeth said.
"Why would you be here if they've already made up their mind?" whispered Tracie Choi, standing in the back of the room. "What's the point of having the meeting?"
The cycle track would run between Cold Spring Lane and Northern Parkway, and would feature, starting from the face of the curb, a 4 1/2--foot-wide bike lane, a 2-to-3-foot-wide buffer lane, and a 7-foot-wide parking lane, said Paul Goldbeck, the project manager for DOT. Flex posts would be placed in groups of 5, 10 feet apart, 50 feet before and after the intersections of Roland Avenue and 12 cross streets.
But Goldbeck cautioned that the plan was still a work in progress and that if the posts are deemed to be too far apart," we may have to put them a little closer, so they are clearly delineated. It's going to be a little trial and error," he said.
McBeth defined a cycle track as "an exclusive bike facility that combines the user experience of a separated path with the on-street infrastructure of a conventional bike lane."
McBeth said plans for a cycle track predate the death of Thomas Palermo, of Towson, who was killed last year on Roland Avenue by Heather Cook, then a bishop suffragan in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, who was driving drunk and texting at the time.
"It was months in the process before he passed," McBeth said, although she noted that the announcement of the plans for a track came around the time of Palermo's death. The track doesn't go as far up as the 5700 block of Roland Avenue, where Palermo was killed.
Cook has since resigned her post, and can no longer present herself as an ordained Episcopal minister. She pleaded guilty in September to manslaughter, drunken driving and leaving the scene of an accident, and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Choi, of Hawthorne Road, described herself as "a huge cyclist," but no fan of the cycle track as planned.
"I wouldn't let my kids ride in it," she told the Baltimore Sun Media Group.
Many of the opponents live on Roland Avenue and questioned whether there is enough room for the cycle tracks on both sides of the road. Some said they are worried that people getting into or out of their cars on Roland Avenue would open their car doors into passing cyclists, who they would not see coming.
"You can still safely exit your car," McBeth insisted.
But Choi said, "Putting a protected bike lane where there are single-family homes doesn't make sense."
Sharon Snyder, one of more than a dozen people on both sides of the issue who spoke to the civic league board, said the city should consider changing Roland Avenue from two lanes to one lane each way, to slow traffic and make more room. But transportation officials said no such idea is being contemplated.
Mary Kay Battafarano said she has garnered more than 300 signatures, including majority of households on Roland Avenue, on a petition calling on the city to focus on finishing the repaving job before winter and delay lane further changes, including adding a cycle track, until spring to allow consideration of alternative designs that would provide a track, retain curbside parking and minimize potential safety hazards.
Some residents and merchants in Roland Park complained that they were poorly informed or not notified about the plan. Among them were three of Roland Avenue's best known store owners , Eddie's of Roland Park owner Nancy Cohen, Gundy's gift shop owner Diane Lochte and Tuxedo Pharmacy owner Harold Davidov.
"My biggest issue has been with the process," Davidov said. "I know I was not notified."
There was also a debate over whether enough people ride bikes on Roland Avenue to warrant a cycle track. But Liz Cornish, of Charles Village, executive director of the local bicycle advocacy group Bikemore, said the track would help promote cycling as an alternative to driving, and would cut down on congestion on Roland Avenue by reducing the number of cars, which the city estimates at about 14,500 a day on the road.
"I get the cynicism" about the cycle track, Cornish said. "People are not driving their cars responsibly."
She added, "I understand the fear and resistance to change."
But she said the planned track "is not something to punish the people of Roland Avenue."
Roland Park resident Jon Laria said he didn't understand what all the fuss was about.
"This is a very ordinary installation," said Laria, an attorney and chairman of the new Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Commission, which promotes cycling in the city. "I feel frankly like everybody is afraid of it, but if you go out in the world, this is what cycle tracks look like. There's nothing aberrational about the design or the location."
Laria also said it's important to build up the city's biking infrastructure because the city is "falling behind" others like Chicago, which has hundreds of miles of dedicated bicycle routes.
Also supporting the track was Mike McQuestion, who has organized several ciclovias, events in which Roland Avenue was closed to southbound traffic for several hours on Sundays so that people could ride bikes, walk, ride skateboards and picnic without the presence of cars.
Roland Park Elementary/Middle School Principal Nicholas D'Ambrosio said he too supports the track, as a safe travel route for students, with the potential to "take cars off the road."
"I'm responsible for the safety of 1,400 kids. To me, this makes sense," D'Ambrosio said. "I have to rely on the experts."
D'Ambrosio was supported by a large contingent of families of Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, including Deirdre Russo, who said after the meeting that she was "100 percent in favor of the project."
Joe Steele, a longtime lieutenant in the Roland Park Engine 44 fire station on Roland Avenue and a resident of the Parkway Apartment next door, said at the meeting that he had mixed feelings about the cycle track plan. Steele said he fears that the track will slow response times by firefighters and paramedics and make it harder for ladders to reach homes that are set back from Roland Avenue.
"As a resident, I want the fire trucks to get to me, but I also want my son to have a safe bike lane," Steele said.
At the end of the meeting, McBeth, the transit chief, said nothing she had heard changed her mind.