While no vote was officially taken, a majority of the Santa Barbara City planning commissioners expressed strong verbal support this Thursday for creating a major new east-west bicycle thoroughfare along Sola Street as opposed to Micheltorena Street. The “vote — four-to one with one absence and one abstention due to conflict of interest” — marks a major reversal as the Planning Commission voted 6-1 last fall in favor of the Micheltorena Street option. However, that was before residents, business owners, and property owners along the five-block stretch of Micheltorena — from Castillo to State streets — came unglued, formed the Micheltorena Neighborhood Association, and notified City Hall they would sue if need be. Although threatened lawsuits are a dime-a-dozen around City Hall, this one had enough meat on the bone to give City Attorney Ariel Calonne serious pause. As a result, city transportation planners were sent back to the drawing boards to re-examine other east-west bike lane options. As a result of that, the Sola Street option — deemed infeasible in prior evaluations — has now emerged as the leading candidate.
The key concern of Micheltorena Street residents is that the bike lane planned for their street — central to the city’s new proposed Bicycle Master Plan — would gobble up 85-100 on-street parking spaces to accommodate green lanes running along both sides of the street. Doctors and therapists who have offices in the affected neighborhood complained their elderly and infirm patients would have a hard time making their appointments if they had to navigate long walks from parking space to office. Renters complained they already encounter difficulty finding parking spaces near their homes and objected that a two-to-three block trek would be unreasonable and potentially unsafe.
The tenor and tone of the Planning Commission deliberations provides yet another indication that the oceanliner that is City Hall is attempting a drastic change of position. Two weeks ago, the Transportation and Circulation Committee also voted in favor of the Sola Street option. That vote also constituted a major reversal. The transportation committee had voted 6-1 in favor of the Micheltorena Street plan last fall.
The final decision, of course, rests with the City Council. In lengthy, contentious deliberations held several months ago, a clear majority of the council expressed strong support for the Micheltorena Street option, though no vote was ever taken. At that time, city transportation planners contended the Micheltorena Street bike lane could be built quicker and much more cheaply than any other alternative. Councilmembers were told the Micheltorena Street bike lanes could be installed for about $350,000, almost overnight, with a fresh coat of green paint on both sides of the street. The Santa Barbara Bicycle Coalition and other bike advocates jumped on board, citing City Hall’s past failures to deliver on east-west bike lanes in the past. They — and the council — rejected the Sola Street alternative even though no parking spaces would be lost — because it would cost as much as $2 million and because the plans as then constituted were highly uncompetitive when it came to securing state grants. Such grant funding is especially crucial because City Hall’s coffers for road repairs and street projects are vastly overextended.
But at the very end of that City Council meeting, it became clear that the potential costs of the Micheltorena Street project had been vastly understated. The project, it was revealed, could require multiple intersection widenings, which in turn might encroach into space now occupied by bus stops and utility poles. Once all those costs were factored in — not to mention delays associated with threatened litigation — the advantages of the Micheltorena plan evaporated.
In the ensuing months, members of the Bicycle Coalition have been meeting with representatives from the Micheltorena Neighborhood Association (MNA), trying to strike a compromise deal. From the start, the MNA made it clear it supported the Bike Master Plan and embraced the need for an east-west thoroughfare. Nor did it hurt that its two main consultants — Chris Price of Price, Postel and Parma and Andrew Rice, a media consultant who once worked for The Santa Barbara Independent — either are or have been ardent bicycle commuters. The two sides have come exceptionally close to signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) twice in recent weeks. Both times, however, the deal fell apart over before anything could be signed, sealed, and delivered.
Even without an MOU, the Bicycle Coalition has moved away from its unequivocal support for the Micheltorena Street plan and has been open to any proposal that promised an east-west corridor for bicycle commuters within the next few years. Initially, bike advocates rejected the Sola Street plan because they believed it would take 15 years to build. A bike lane delayed that long, they argued, was a bike lane denied.
Since the Bike Master Plan was first unveiled, the details of the proposed Sola Street alternative has gone through significant changes. For example, what’s on the table now calls for a bike lane that runs down Micheltornena Street from the Westside one block to Castillo, at which point it would jog right for one block, to Sola Street. At that point riders would turn left. Under the previous plan, the Sola Street lane would extend only to State Street. Under what’s on the table now, it would extend all the way to either Olive or Laguna streets. Yes, it will be more expensive — requiring four stop lights instead of two — but the increased length would make the proposal far more eligible for state transportation grants. Under the terms of the failed MOU, the Micheltorena Neighborhood Association would have committed to participating in a major fundraising effort to help defray the costs. The involvement of community members in such efforts also increases the competitiveness of any state grant applications. Without an MOU, the interest by Micheltorena Street advocates to engage in such private fundraising remains uncertain at best. The deal reportedly failed over “what-if” language in the event the Sola Street plan flopped for whatever reason. In that eventuality, bike advocates would revert to their support for the controversial Micheltorena Street plan. They reportedly wanted assurances that the Micheltorena neighborhood advocates would not sue to stop that plan from going forward. For the Micheltorena advocates, that was a deal killer.
The deadline for state grant applications is this June. Even with an MOU, it’s unclear whether city traffic planners could have submitted a grant application by the deadline. Without such an MOU, it’s all but impossible. The matter now goes to the City Council.