COLUMBIA — In the summer of 2005, the hard work of city officials and Columbia biking enthusiasts paid off in the form of a $22 million grant from the federal government to see if nonmotorized transportation could work on a citywide scale. The announcement was met with excitement and high expectations of just how quickly the grant would translate into tangible changes.
Three and a half years later, however, GetAbout Columbia has fewer years left — two — than actual trails constructed, which is zero.
The first few years of the pilot project have featured lessons learned about the program and deciphering the bureaucratic triangle of the city, the Missouri Department of Transportation and the federal government.
City council members and city staffers say they regret the program’s pace. Some blame the bureaucracies; others say the process of designing a project and implementing the idea just takes time. A restart of the program would see more people involved earlier and an altered plan.
Some progress has been made. GetAbout Columbia has gained community recognition, and the city’s limited results have shown positive changes in behavior.
This is where the city finds itself with GetAbout Columbia less than two years before the city presents its final report to Congress: No trails constructed, intersection construction beginning and officials worried a major change in the way Columbia travels might not be visible by 2010. As a result, officials are trying to conjure up new ways to measure evidence of progress.
“You’re always optimistic about how much you can get done,” GetAbout Columbia manager Ted Curtis said. “I think we’ve been going as quickly as we can, even though it seems like it’s taking forever.”
When Columbia received the federal grant in July 2005, Mayor Darwin Hindman envisioned people riding their bikes daily on the newly constructed trails and intersection construction well on its way by late 2008.
“All of those things I would have hoped would have been done by now,” Hindman said. “I understand why they haven’t been. I am pleased that some of these projects are actually going forward.”
An 'arduous and long process'
Hindman is not alone in his frustration with the pace of the program.
“It's been an arduous and long process,” said Dan Smith, GetAbout Columbia programming subcommittee chairperson and executive committee member.
The bureaucracies involved have slowed the program, Hindman said. The money is administered from the federal government to the state to the organization.
Once the organization issues a contract for work, it has to be approved by the state transportation department and the federal government, said John Riddick, GetAbout Columbia executive committee member. Almost anything of value has to be approved by all parties involved.
“It’s a huge process that it has to go through,” Riddick said.
Curtis said the design-to-implementation process takes time regardless of how many bureaucracies have a say.
To help the process, Gabe Rousseau, bicycle and pedestrian program manager with the Federal Highway Administration, leads biweekly teleconferences with the federal pilot programs in Columbia and three other parts of the country.
Columbia’s specific plan has differed somewhat from the other three. The plan to get more people using nonmotorized transportation, Curtis said, began with the hope of creating awareness and understanding of the program. For the promotion and education aspect of the pilot project, the city hired Vangel Marketing, which created GetAbout’s Web site. GetAbout Columbia also works with organizations like PedNet in promoting biking and GetAbout Columbia’s efforts.
“It doesn’t matter if you have these facilities if you can’t encourage folks to change their ways and get out of the car,” Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said.
In total, GetAbout Columbia has $3.4 million budgeted for promotion, education and its downtown office, about 15 percent of the grant.
“That’s higher than any of the other pilots are doing,” said Curtis about the other three pilot programs in Marin County, Calif., Minneapolis, Minn., and Sheboygan County, Wisc.
Initially, staff also started chipping away on the expensive, slow-moving infrastructure projects, a strategy Curtis wishes he could tweak. Engineering firms in St. Louis and Kansas City conducted study after study, and workers designed possible plans for street marking and bike parking.
“We didn’t see much, and people didn’t see much happening,” Smith said, “and I think there was this concern from citizens that we had this money, but what were we doing with it?”
If Curtis could do it over again, he said, he’d give the community more information on trail standards — if a trail should be asphalt, concrete, gravel or a combination. He’d also push forward the on-street markings that should connect the city when the project is completed.
“It will be a real showcase to how we get people around," Curtis said of the about 100 miles of markings that will be completed by 2010.
A little more than $2 million has been budgeted to pay companies to mark the streets for bike parking and other bike-related symbols.
The trail standards have often become controversial and still haven't been resolved. Curtis said the Columbia City Council has decided that it needs more time to discuss trail standards and will do so at its spring retreat.
Skala said he also would have liked the program to talk with neighborhood associations and other citizens about their concerns earlier in the process.
Navigating the challenges
When the pilot project started, Skala said, little explanation about the project was given to members of the council and then city staff generated a proposal for the project. Changes started coming when the composition of the council changed in the April 2007 election, Skala said.
“This city council is a little different,” he said. “We want to know what that generation is all about and what the folks think about it initially.”
Lack of communication has prompted other problems for the project as well, Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade said.
When engineering firms gather data about an area, they survey the land first by placing flags around the area. Wade said citizens in his ward have come up to him thinking the bulldozers were right around the corner.
“They’re learning, and I think they’re doing a better job in engaging with those that are directly affected,” Wade said of the GetAbout Columbia staff.
Kip Kendrick, president of the Benton-Stephens Neighborhood Association, said working with Curtis and other GetAbout Columbia staff has been exciting.
“They seem very open to working with the public, especially with our neighborhood and the Stephens neighborhood,” Kendrick said. “It’s just nice to hear that they’re willing to have neighborhood input.”
But talking with citizens also adds to the time it takes for projects to be completed. “All of these things that are connected with the democracy make it take time,” Hindman said.
The staff have also learned how to navigate through the bureaucracies at a quicker pace. Each project has to go through the same steps to be approved and takes about the same amount of time to be approved, Hindman said, regardless of its size. So the staff has started packaging smaller items as a large project rather than each small trail on an individual basis, Hindman said.
In total, $1.6 million is budgeted for planning, management and in-house design, including the planning and designing of bike lanes, bike routes and bike parking.
Along with the lessons learned, recent progress includes the beginning of construction on several intersections to make them more bicycle and pedestrian friendly, along with council approval of plans for at least three biking and walking trails. About a third of the on-street markings have also been finished.
Curtis said the project is heading to stage three of the experiment — getting more people riding bicycles or walking instead of filling the gas tank.
“We can build something. That’s easy. It’s a process,” Curtis said. “Getting people to change their behavior is probably the hardest thing in the world.”
The success of Columbia’s pilot program depends largely on whether enough people leave their cars parked. Peer pressure could help, much like it does when someone is trying to quit smoking.
“A car’s pretty addicting,” Curtis said. He also thinks an unwillingness to pay for fuel, worries about the environment and concern about personal health should increase the pilot project's chances.
Hoping for the best
By the end of 2009, Curtis said, three intersection improvements — Forum and Providence, Stadium and Providence and Stewart and Providence — should be finished. About 90 miles of the on-street marking and parking should be painted. The Providence South Trail and Hominy Creek Trail should be completed, and crews should have at least started building the County House Branch Trail.
All trails and sidewalk projects — 56 percent of the budget, $12.3 million — are scheduled to be completed by the end of 2010.
After that, it’s up to Congress whether more earmarked money comes Columbia’s way.
In 2005, Congress earmarked $100 million to the four communities to prove nonmotorized transportation could be successful on a city-wide scale. The money was passed in a federal transportation bill that expires in 2010.
The goal for the next transportation bill, likely to be renewed in 2011, is to have 40 communities receive $60 million instead of four receiving $22 million, said Ian Thomas, PedNet’s executive director.
“We would obviously hope very much that Columbia would be one of the 40 communities,” Thomas said.
PedNet and other bicycle advocacy organizations have been writing to members of Congress asking for more funds, telling them the program has been working thus far.
Because Columbia officials are worried a big switch to bikes and walking might not be here by 2010, they, along with the other pilot programs, have been tracking progress through other routes.
“Everybody realizes this is too short of a time to see a major shift,” Curtis said.
For example, there were 5,000 bikes on city buses in 2007. In 2008, city officials saw at least 8,000 bikes. At least 133 people have taken the Confident City Cycling course through PedNet, which signed a $600,000 18-month contract that expires in April and plans to negotiate a new contract in January.
PedNet and MU conduct quarterly counts of bicyclists at six Columbia intersections. GetAbout Columbia also has installed mechanical counters at locations around town to track the number of bicyclists.
"I still think we got a ways to go," Curtis said of building a critical mass of people needed to see a change in transportation habits.
With an incoming presidential administration planning to spend billions of dollars on infrastructure, Skala likes Columbia’s chances of landing more federal funds.
“It depends how much money we have left once we’ve bailed everybody out,” Skala said. “I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job with the money we’ve been given.”
The first visible altering of landscape is scheduled for this month, Curtis said. Construction is scheduled to start in January on three of the five intersection projects.
About $2.6 million, or almost 12 percent of the $22 million federal grant, has
been budgeted for those improvements. The city of Columbia also plans to fund the makeover of the
Broadway and Old 63 intersection.
In Portland, the model city for Columbia, Curtis said, building the infrastructure took about 10 years, and the next five years saw more change each year.
But Columbia doesn’t have 10 or 15 years to show Congress evidence that the grant is leading to more nonmotorized transportation.
Its final report is due to Congress by Sept. 30, 2010.
“I’m confident that we’ll see results,” Hindman said. “The rest of the country is watching to see how we do.”