On street design, city pressing state to bend

Fayetteville Alderman Matthew Petty gave a blunt assessment of one of the city's busiest street sections: College Avenue through downtown needs to be better for everyone who isn't in a vehicle.

Narrowing the street's mostly 11-foot lanes by 12 inches would be enough to make the thoroughfare immediately easier to cross and use for pedestrians and cyclists, he told his fellow City Council members in February. A small section near Trenton Boulevard already had 10-foot lanes, which researchers across the country found trims a few miles per hour off vehicle speeds.

College Avenue also is a state highway, meaning any change requires the green light from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. The department decided a joint project to add wider sidewalks to both sides of College Avenue would include widening the 10-foot section to 11 feet.

"It has to be made more safe, and right now the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department is standing in the way of us making it more safe," said Petty, chairman of the council's transportation committee and development associate with the University of Arkansas Community Design Center. "I think this is something we need to be adamant about."

The department is focused on drivers and their safety, mobility and convenience; helping them get where they're going quickly and with fewer chances of hitting someone, said Danny Straessle, spokesman for the department.

"We are a highway department," he said, adding that 11 feet is typically the department's minimum to accommodate traffic even in city limits, while 12 feet, the typical width on interstates, is "preferred." The widening also is to keep the street uniform, he said.

The dispute is a window into the gradual, occasionally contentious push among cities in Arkansas and elsewhere to design and build streets for walkers and bikers, not just drivers. The state agency must find a balance between that push and its traditional focus on vehicles when those streets also are state highways, Straessle said.

"We make a concerted effort to work with the local jurisdiction," he said, noting the department adjusts to many city requests and is working on integrating bike lanes into its plans statewide. "Never do we work in a vacuum."

The city front

The back-and-forth between Fayetteville and the department began more than a decade ago. Fayetteville residents pushed back in 2001 against the department's plans to widen Garland Avenue around the Wedington Drive and North Street intersection and asked for medians to make it safer for pedestrians and schoolchildren.

The department said it had to address rising traffic counts and accidents. The project was completed 14 years later with a new lane and no median.

The redesign of the Wedington and Interstate 49 interchange has been ongoing for at least a decade. Highway projects move slowly, with deliberative planning, securing the money and actual work typically taking years. Discussion of a side path Fayetteville wants prolonged the process in this case.

"The Highway Department's goals are slightly different than the city's, or we have additional goals," Fayetteville city engineer Chris Brown said earlier this year, pointing to what he called the department's "singular focus" on cars and trucks and its cautious approach to any changes from how it normally designs roads.

The department has been receptive to hearing the city's thoughts, but "any time you get them to step outside their standard procedure, it's going to be a very slow and tedious process," Brown said.

The Highway Department first offered a bike lane down the road's middle that the city rebuffed in 2014, saying the heavy traffic would be intimidating even for experienced cyclists. The department agreed to the side path as long as the city covered the $170,000 cost.

Similar debates have sprung up elsewhere, such as a fight over a widening project for Interstate 30 in downtown Little Rock. The Highway Department plans to add several lanes on the section over the Arkansas River to deal with current traffic and expected traffic. Local critics argue adding lanes only creates more traffic, a phenomenon called induced demand.

Little Rock architect and designer Tom Fennell has helped lead the charge to replace the proposal with a divided, slower boulevard layout. The design in other cities has led to an economic boom by sustaining lively and walkable downtown districts, according to its proponents and advocacy groups such as Smart Growth America of Washington, D.C.

"Times have changed and they haven't," Fennell said of the Highway Department, adding he and others hope to sway public opinion to force the agency to adjust its plans. "They're really good at connecting cities, but once they get to cities, they really fall down on the job unless the city is really active."

Officials said that while they often have to cover the cost of extra features for other modes of transportation, the department generally hasn't stopped them.

"The Highway Department's come a long way in the last few years," said Troy Galloway, Bentonville's community and economic development director. He said it's important to get extra features added at the very beginning of the design process. "I think that's the key -- sometimes we have to over-communicate on both sides to make sure everyone understands."

Fayetteville and the department cooperated during the decade-long expansion of Crossover Road, also called Arkansas 265, to include a grassy median and side paths along its length within the city. Work was completed in 2015. The department endorsed the median plan, while several residents complained the median would make it too difficult or dangerous to get from one side of the road to the other.

Looking forward

The debates reflect a changing philosophy of city planning across the country. Decades ago, urban freeways and suburban sprawl grew from and encouraged cultural habits of splitting homes, work and shopping in different parts of town. Those habits are slowly changing in favor of dense, mixed and walkable development.

"There was a feeling among a lot of people that, hey, this sprawl is really not so good," said Robert Steuteville, senior communications adviser for the Congress for the New Urbanism, a nonprofit advocacy and research group. "So it grew to be a movement of people who were realizing cities and towns function a certain way. They need diversity. They need street life. They need mixed use."

Dense, mixed-use development can drum up more economic activity and several times as much property- and sales-tax revenue per acre as typical, sprawling development, according to the advocacy group Smart Growth America, the nonprofit Urban Community Partnership and other groups. Property values and people's health also can benefit.

Still, most cities change course only gradually if at all, Steuteville said.

Petty said he wants the Highway Department to be more flexible and up-to-date, saying it relies on trade publications that change at a "glacial" pace.

Straessle said the department keeps up with transportation trends. It drafted a statewide bike and pedestrian plan that includes developing a network that supports on-road cycling and encourages pedestrian access throughout cities with policy and money among its primary goals.

The tentative plan is set to go before the state Highway Commission for a vote before the end of the year, Straessle said this month.

"We're very conscious of quality of life, and a lot of that means bicycles, particularly bicycles, and walking," Dick Trammel, chairman of the commission, said Thursday. Traffic safety includes all modes of transportation, he said. "We try to take care of the taxpayers' money as efficiently as possible and keep people safe."

Straessle pointed to a highway project in Conway as an example of accommodating a city's wishes. The city wanted -- and received -- two roundabouts to slow the flow of traffic and allow other modes of transportation, he said.

"If the city has a bicycle pedestrian master plan in place, and it calls for this particular route to have a bike lane or whatever, then we'll typically honor that," Straessle said. But it has to be on the city's books, unlike the boulevard proposal in Little Rock, he said.

"If it's something that they don't have, and they say, 'Gosh, we could put a tree-lined median in there and we could do this and do that,' and it's not in a plan, then we're not going to do that."

Metro on 07/24/2016


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