Just a week ago, the “Today’s Question” on this page was, “Did GetAbout Columbia put too much money toward advertising and education?”
I’m going to go with Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala on that one. He was quoted in a front page article that day as saying, “I think we need to get the stuff on the ground and encourage people to use what is there before trying to promise them what may be coming in the future. It’s a little bit too abstract.”
The opposite of “abstract,” in construction as well as in semantics, is “concrete.” Some of that has been poured, most noticeably at several prominent intersections. I’ll go beyond Karl’s critique and confess to being at least a little puzzled about how much benefit we nonmotorized travelers will derive from what I’ve seen.
Take, for instance, the work that’s now completed at the corner of Stewart and Providence roads. When I cross that intersection, which I do on foot twice most days, I enjoy pushing the button on the spiffy new pedestrian signal. I like to hear the little “beep, beep” and count down the seconds until the red hand appears. Aside from a bit of childish pleasure, though, I’m skeptical about whether I and my fellow walkers, runners and bikers are actually any safer.
There’s a nice new sign, too, at that entrance to the MKT Trail. It looks pretty costly. Maybe that and the newly paved stretch have increased traffic on the trail. I hope so. I use the new underpasses occasionally when they’re not flooded. They’re never crowded.
The intersection work that has caused a good bit of public grousing has tangled traffic of the automotive variety for months at Stadium and Providence and Stadium and Forum. I’ve tried to figure out just what the benefit to pedestrians and bikers will be. It’s not apparent yet, at least not to me. And I can’t help wondering who’ll have to brave the traffic to maintain the cute little patch of grass that now graces the new raised median just east of Forum. I wouldn’t want that assignment.
Don’t get me wrong. I bow to no one, except maybe our bicyclist mayor, in my support for getting about Columbia without consuming hydrocarbons. But two other aspects of the project so far do concern me. One is that, as Councilman Karl points out, we don’t have much actual infrastructure to show for being halfway through the three-year grant. The other is that allocating $3.14 million of the $22 million grant to promotion and education seems a little — maybe more than a little — excessive.
I understand that planning and acquiring right-of-way for trails and bikeways takes time. But couldn’t we have had by now, just to take one example, a wider and safer sidewalk along West Boulevard? Sharrows aren’t much of a substitute.
When I look at the list of promotional projects and the roster of subcontractors, I do realize that there’s an economic stimulus effect of this spending. In addition to Vangel Marketing, I count four local firms that are working with words rather than concrete. PR people, Web designers, lawyers and CPAs need jobs, too. Besides, the wordsmiths are probably more likely to be pedestrians. The construction guys I know are generally happier in pickups than on bikes.
Despite my quibbles, I’m glad Columbia got this grant. It’s being spent, I’m sure, with the best of intentions. The more we walk and bike, the better off we’ll be, individually and as a community.
And now I’m going to walk away from my computer for a bit. With any luck, I’ll be back to harangue you in a couple of weeks.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.