A county plan to bring bike lanes to a congested Ellicott City area that supports three public schools drew strong opposition from residents Thursday night.
At a packed community meeting with around 200 attending, residents pressed county officials to drop or dramatically alter the plans, which could convert existing shoulders used for overflow parking from school events into bike lanes on either side of the street.
The county plans to add a 1.3-mile bike route from Old Annapolis Road to Frederick Road, a stretch that includes the hilly Centennial Lane and an area that supports Centennial Lane Elementary School, Burleigh Manor Middle School and Centennial Lane High School. Cars routinely back up into the street during pickup and drop-off times at the schools.
"They're trying to squeeze this in where there is not enough space for anybody to be safe," said Bonnie Sorak, a 53-year-old Ellicott City resident who has children in all three schools.
Pushback against the proposal could signal a rocky start for the county's implementation of Bike Howard, a master plan that weaves a county-wide network of bicycling routes throughout commercial and residential areas.
Bicycling is a movement that advocates say is catching on in Howard County and particularly in Columbia, where an existing network of pathways creates a transportation framework for bicyclists and pedestrians.
Bicycling advocates and organizations like the Horizon Foundation pushed the Howard County Council to pass the plan in April after more than four years of planning. The plan drew strong support from the community at public hearings earlier this year and was passed unanimously by the council.
Jack Guarneri, an Ellicott City resident who has lived in the area for 26 years, said he was disappointed with how the county handled communicating with local residents about the plans.
"We worked on [Bike Howard] for four years. This is a low-cost project and we're already having trouble" said Guarneri, who is also the president of Bicycling Advocates of Howard County.
Thursday's meeting, intended as an opportunity for residents to informally view plans, quickly devolved into heated back-and-forth between residents and county officials.
As part of the Bike Howard plan, bike lanes are considered when streets are scheduled for repaving. Centennial Lane, a busy thoroughfare with a daily average of 14,000 automobiles, is scheduled for repaving this fiscal year. Speeds on the road are largely within the speed limit of 40 miles per hour, according to county data.
Two community meetings open to the public earlier this year prompted the county to revise its plans because of community pushback. Current proposal include removing some shoulder parking for bike lanes, which residents said could push overflow parking during school events into neighborhoods. The county is also considering adding a crosswalk in front of the elementary school.
Kris Jagarapu, chief of the county's traffic engineering division, repeatedly assured residents the plan was "not a done deal."
But Meg Roth, a 44-year-old Ellicott City resident, said the community still felt completely blindsided.
"Nothing is changing. The bicycling advocates are the ones who want this and they've known about it," Roth said. "The community knew nothing."
Anita Marino, 66, called the plan "a road to nowhere."
It could take several years for the county to connect the bike lane on Centennial Lane to a wider network. The Maryland State Highway Administration is studying plans at nearby intersections.
Marino, who has lived in the area for 31 years, said bike lanes will shift traffic patterns and exacerbate already unsafe conditions. In the late 1990s, Marino was part of a committee that proposed design changes to the county road, including such details as selecting the types of trees on the thoroughfare.
"The bottom line is it's not going to be healthy if you're not safe and if your quality of life is at risk," Marino said. "What we're saying is falling on deaf ears. The county says they voted on this plan. And everybody said, what vote?"
The project, which includes costs of repaving and removing wooden posts and chains along the sidewalk, some of which have collapsed, could cost up to $1 million, according to Yan Zhang, an engineer with the county's Department of Public Works.
The county hopes to complete the project during spring break next year.
Bicycling advocates like Michael McKennan, an Ellicott City resident, said the bike lane is a much-needed route for bicyclists who ride to Centennial Park. Bike Howard aims to promote bicycling as a safe and environmentally friendly mode of transport.
"People should take the needs of the entire community into consideration. This is not just about one community," McKennan, 52, said.
Residents opposing the plan stressed their stance was not an indictment against biking.
Kevin Blaney, an Elkridge resident and bicycling advocate, said the current road and the proposal does not guarantee bikers' safety. "Taking away vehicle lanes only increases the stress of drivers. And anytime that goes up, bicyclists are less safe," Blaney said.
A community push to make the county's paths safer and more walkable cycled on as residents and bike enthusiasts pressed the Howard County Council to pass the county's first Bike Master Plan on Monday night.
Still, Blaney said Howard County residents should be prepared to embrace what he called a growing movement to embrace bicycling. The passage of Bike Howard is a clear indication Howard County is wheeling toward that movement.