COLUMBIA — Three years ago the federal government granted Columbia $22 million as a pilot city for nonmotorized transportation, and the city made plans.
Plans to build trails. Plans to build sidewalks. Plans to improve the overall connectivity of the city. All with the goal of getting people to take their foot off the gas and onto the pedal. Or into some comfortable shoes. All of it aimed at behavior change.
Since then GetAbout Columbia has redesigned intersections, striped bike lanes and painted “sharrows” to mark where cyclists should ride.
Cycling classes have been held, and, at the very least, the goal of getting people out of their cars has seeped into the public discourse.
But the city has yet to build any trails or sidewalks.
And only one year remains until Columbia must submit a report to Congress on its progress and be judged on its success or lack thereof. Columbia is one of four pilot communities, and when the federal Highway Transportation Bill comes up for renewal at the end of 2010, each will find out what, if any, additional money they receive.
Progress comes at a slow pace
GetAbout estimated that more projects would be finished by now. Plans for some have been delayed; others have been dropped.
“One complaint we heard was it’s taken a long time for these projects, but I don’t see any way around that,” said Sarah Ashman, manager of Walt’s Bicycle Shop. “It takes time, and I think people understand that now.”
Ted Curtis, manager of GetAbout Columbia, attributes the delays to the engineering process and a lengthier-than-anticipated federal approval process.
GetAbout scheduled eight intersection redesigns for completion by the end of 2008. Only three are in place, however, and plans for three of the five remaining intersections have been dropped.
“We wanted to do a good job on five rather then a mediocre job on eight,” Curtis said.
The redesign of the intersections includes changing the angle of the right-turn lane to make it easier for bicyclists to see oncoming cars as well as widening the islands and pedestrian crossings.
Ashman said she’s heard customers say they feel much safer going through the redesigned intersections.
“Before, you either had to ride behind the bumper between cars or almost out into oncoming traffic,” said Chris Hayday, cyclist and GetAbout advisory committee member.
The redesign itself apparently wasn’t clear to everyone, though. Travel from Forum through the intersection at Stadium, and you will notice a portion of the bike lane is painted green. The coloring came as a result of uncertainty among cyclists about where to ride in the new intersection.
Josh Stockwell of Klunk Bicycles and Repair said he has heard confusion from some cyclists about other new street markings as well.
Fellow cyclist and advisory committee member Brad Eiffert rides through the redesigned intersection at Forum and Stadium Boulevard and doesn’t notice much of a difference.
“I felt safe before, I feel safe now,” he said.
Eiffert would’ve rather seen the money spent on intersections go toward increased connectivity among trails that take pedestrians off major thoroughfares.
For example, Eiffert said he would have liked to see the city build a proposed Interstate 70 overpass that connects to north Columbia and Cosmopolitan Park. That won’t happen with current funding.
Despite this, Eiffert is supportive of the progress GetAbout has made and the direction it’s heading.
Left on the cutting room floor
GetAbout has spent $350,000 on conceptual engineering of projects now scrapped, Curtis said. Although there are no immediate plans to pursue those projects, they could still be built. "It’s good to invest in the plans so we can apply for future funding,” Curtis said.
The dropped projects aren't necessarily a result of GetAbout overreaching. In the drafting of original plans, more projects were proposed than funding allowed, with the stated expectation that not all would hit the ground.
Dropped projects include:
- a trail that would’ve paralleled the COLT rail from Rogers Street across I-70 and connected to Vandiver Drive, and
- replacement of the existing downtown Providence Road pedestrian overpass with a more attractive one that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala said he thinks the COLT trail would’ve been key to connecting Columbia. “It was just my feeling that when we were allocating money for these various projects, a good chunk of it was already gone," Skala said.
GetAbout has put an emphasis on marketing and education; the group has spent $2.16 million to date. That has all gone to Vangel Marketing Communication*, a local firm charged with promoting the GetAbout initiative. Vangel subcontracts alternative transportation workshops and educational classes to PedNet, a local nonprofit organization.
Columbia has outspent the other pilot cities on promotion and education, with some cycling classes sparsely attended and subsequently dropped.
On the table, under construction
Plenty of projects still remain in the works, and GetAbout estimates the majority will be finished in 2010. Columbia has only spent $5.6 million to date, but decisions on how to allocate the remainder of the $22 million money have been made.
The most costly projects that remain are:
- Phase 1 of the Old 63 elevated walkway that will link Moon Valley Road to Grindstone Nature Area at a cost of $1.96 million,
$1.33 million County House trail that will link Twin Lakes Recreation Area to
Stadium Boulevard, and
- Phase 2 of the Hominy Branch trail, which will connect The Links at Columbia apartment complex to Stephens Lake Park at a cost of $1.35 million.
Money to replace the dropped Providence Road overpass project will instead be spent on installing raised medians in the middle of the street. These “safe havens,” as Curtis describes them, provide a place for pedestrians to stand as they cross.
All of these planned projects must go through several stages of approval from the City Council, including preliminary design and engineering, land acquisition, and, in some instances, project revisions. Federal approval also creates a speed bump for project planning.
Curtis noted one case in which the city needed a temporary easement for trail construction. The owner asked for thousands more than the amount at which the land had been appraised, forcing the city to redesign the route.
GetAbout works with the Missouri Department of Transportation throughout planning in order to get the green light. It can make for a long process, Curtis said.
Marianne Fowler, senior vice president of federal relations for the Rails to Trails Conservancy, said she thinks the approval process that pilot communities must go through is geared more toward major highway projects than trails and other such infrastructure.
“There’s a disconnect between big projects and small-scale projects,” she said.
The Conservancy lobbied for the four pilot cities to receive the initial funding and will now try to change the process such projects must go through with upcoming legislation, Fowler said.
As with many projects, construction has caused some grumbling as well. GetAbout received complaints from motorists about the increased traffic flow during the redesign of the intersections, Curtis said, but feedback has generally been positive since completion.
The federal government also gave Columbia a separate grant for transportation enhancement. The city will spend $500,000 of this grant on the first phase of the Hominy Branch trail, which runs from Green Valley Road to the Woodridge neighborhood; and $468,000 will be spent on the first phase of the Hinkson Creek trail connector, linking Grindstone Nature Area to Stephens Lake Park.
The city matched this with $1.32 million for the Hominy Branch trail and $312,000 for the Hinkson Creek trail. The matching funding came from revenue from a local sales tax.
Final design decisions such as whether to use asphalt or gravel on the Hominy Branch trail remain to be made. The council will hold hearings on these issues in the coming months, but Jill Stedem of the Public Works Department said no hearings have been scheduled yet.