Tuesday, August 2, 2016

City DOT in trouble

If one deals with Mount Royal Avenue, there is a considerable phalanx of stakeholders to reckon with that can't be overestimated. The Mount Royal Improvement Association, MICA, the University of Baltimore, a former Deputy Mayor, a very active councilman, and since bicycle facilities are involved, also the always forward leaning Bikemore representative Liz Cornish.
No road diet: Mount Royal Avenue has too much pavement. But there won't
be any less after the streetscaping, only more

None of that impressed City DOT, and so they and their consultants bumbled through the last five years with their Mt Royal streetscape project just as they do with the Light Street reconfiguration at the McKeldin Plaza, the conversion project for Calvert and St Paul Streets or the Circulator and water taxi service.

While some blame the sluggish pace on third party review  by SHA and sometimes federal government, in reality City DOT has been "in shambles" for some time (in the words of a former leading figure there) with poor leadership and oversight, fraud and recently without a director.

Monday was the final community meeting for the Mount Royal Avenue streetscape project with a presentation of the project which is now somewhere between 90% and a 100% designed (The presenters couldn't quite decide which, nor could they quite say if the project had a $5 or a $10 million price tag). The project would be ready for bid in the fall; the community meeting on the sixth floor of the UB law school, it turned out midway into the presentation was "just for information". Changes are out of the question at this point .

Only problem: The last community meeting before this one took place in April of 2014! Some people died since then, others were born, or more importantly, moved into the area in the 27 months that had passed since the last update. It is also possible, some wouldn't remember exactly what was said before. The consultant and the DOT representatives seemed to fall into the last two categories, which is why hardly any precise question was followed by a precise answer. For example there was a heated discussion about a letter that the community sent a months after the last meeting which included five specific recommendations. None of the presenters seemed to know what those were. All that all agreed on is that somewhere at DOT there is an ominous "engineer" who knew those requests and who had said no to most of what was proposed at the 30% and 65% milestones of the design without giving any further explanations. Quite possibly that person is actually the now Acting Director of DOT.
Presenting Mt Royal streetscape plans: Its 100% done!

The final Mt Royal Avenue plans were hard to read on the projection screen, the accompanying verbal presentation didn't help much either since one had to pull the facts out of the presenter one by one.

Eventually it became clear that

  • Mt Royal Avenue will have a two-way cycle track on north side of the road (for the most part), 
  • that mostly will kill the current parking lane on that same side because 
  • there will still remain two travel lanes in each direction, even though there is no good reason for that; 
  • that the well landscaped median needs to become skinnier to accommodate the 9' bikeway, 
  • that the bikeway in front of the Lyric will be carved out of the wide sidewalk there so that a parking lane can remain in that location but outside of the bikelane, and 
  • that the bikeway will be skipped in the section east of Charles Street to Guildford in favor of riding on the sidewalk. 
A contentious item was the slip ramp off I-83 merging into westbound Mt Royal; contentious because through speed and blind spots it will be posing a threat to those peds and bicyclists duking it out with each other on the shared sidewalk. This point had been made in previous sessions by various parties and been named in letters. Yet the ramp remained unchanged (except a flashing beacon was added).

The slip ramp, the reduction of the sidewalk in front of the Lyric Opera House, and the killing of a row of parking in front of MICA in favor of two through lanes, these are all really bad ideas. But at the 90% (or 100%?) stage there is no time left to change any of that.

In spite of MRIA President Steve Howard's hard driving attempts to get satisfactory responses, ultimately it was the good luck of the residents that Councilman Eric Costello was there to put the gauntlet down. He promised to write a request to scale the design back to 65% again, so that the concerns could be considered. Liz Cornish of Bikemore was a bit skeptical about that, because such a step would repeat the outside agency reviews and set the project back for years. She opted for "change orders", instead. The University of Baltimore representative just wanted a big meeting with the decision makers ("whoever they are") so he could hear some actual reasoning why things were designed the way they are. The poor DOT community liaison, Grishae Blackett’e was frantically trying to keep up with all the ideas, none following DOT's process, as it were.
Between speechless and angry: Community members

One can hope that DOT staff will be fully replenished and that the department will become a more effective agency under Catherine Pugh as Mayor. Meanwhile, the current Mayor's former Assistant Deputy for Operations, Dan Sparaco, who lives in the area, summed it up this way: "These [small] projects can't keep taking five years".

True, at this pace Baltimore will never have a set of "complete streets", a policy the department committed to  years ago. On paper.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Since DOT is not in the habit of publishing their design online, I cannot share any plans. I couldn't even do screenshots since the lighting was too bright to see anything. 

The best overview is provided by Bikemore