Santa Monica Blvd Lanes Off the Table?

On Tuesday, Beverly Hills City Council will receive a Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction update at its 2:30 pm study session. The Council will likely focus on project cost and the key question of whether to expand the boulevard. Unfortunately the surprise reveal of near-doubled project costs distracted attention from issues like road safety, so at present bicycle lanes appear to be off the table. Let’s briefly review the project and look at what’s up for Council consideration on April 1st.

You’ll remember that the state turned over Santa Monica Boulevard to the city about ten years ago along with a small pot of money for repairs. But this key Westside corridor was never repaired by Beverly Hills; today it is pockmarked with potholes and punctuated by hazardous storm grates. It needs major TLC, and this project will reconstruct it from the macadam down to the plumbing. That costs real money: the cost is now projected to approach $35 million (with a 25% cushion for cost overruns). That’s up from just $17 million a month ago.

A ‘Blue-Ribbon Committee’ was appointed and charged by City Council to advise on project options and mitigation. Options included a landscaped median, class II bicycle lanes, and features such as bus shelters. Our committee got an earful: fifty stakeholders appeared and 150 comments were submitted through our fourth (and final) meeting.  Overwhelmingly the public supported the inclusion of bicycle lanes. (Full disclosure: Better Bike was appointed, and represented multimodal mobility interests on the committee.)

The committee in fact recommended to council that the boulevard be expanded to facilitate the reconstruction and to stripe 5-foot bicycle lanes. (Read the committee recap.) The committee’s recommendation was then presented to Council on March 8th, where we saw a majority of the members of the public who spoke then also favor lanes. (Our own letter of support was somehow left out of the Council’s meeting packet, however – an omission not yet explained.)

While the meeting saw neighborhood NIMBYs turn out and threaten elected officials with ballot box pain, the overall message to Council from the public was to design tomorrow’s corridor to safely serve our city and region in our post-auto era. But a majority of the Council seemed either opposed to widening the blacktop, or else hostile to the prospect of bicycle lanes (or both). Only former Mayor John Mirisch spoke about multimodal mobility; current Mayor Lili Bosse largely reserved comment.

Yet the outcome of the March 8th meeting was uncertain: staff was softly reprimanded for how the project has been handled; and key decisions about the boulevard were deferred in light of the news of the ballooning costs.

At this Tuesday’s meeting (agenda) City Council will again have an opportunity to shape the project. But not on the menu, according to the staff report, is a bike lane option:

City Council action on the two major components of conceptual design, the width of the roadway and whether or not to include landscaped medians, is required in order for the Psomas team to proceed with project design and will be a determining factor in recommendations for construction mitigation, scheduling plan, and determining the level of environmental review for the project. – Staff Report

Both the median and the lanes options were recommended by the Blue-Ribbon Committee, but what’s become of the bicycle lanes? It’s not like City Council ever came to a definitive decision; the issue of bicycle lanes was simply left hanging amid all of the hand-wringing about escalating costs.

But the staff report’s dismissal of the lanes option is no surprise to us: bike advocates should expect to get sandbagged by Beverly Hills city officials. They don’t see fit to mention, much less endorse, complete streets, for one thing. Even our project consultant, Psomas, drank the cool-aid and recommended against striping lanes. And they certainly have exhibited no regard for rider safety.

Project Cost Dominates the Discussion

Looking back at the March 8th meeting, the news about escalating costs was a monkey wrench tossed in by staff just hours before Council convened. As a dozen bike advocates waited to address Council about lanes, we learned that anticipated costs had ballooned. That pushed action on project options off the table.

How do costs double from $17 million to $35 million? The new staff report helpfully details the rise:

The initial project budget estimate prepared by City staff in 2006 was $12.0 million. During the FY2013/14 Capital Improvement Program budget process, staff reviewed construction costs and updated the estimate to $16.2 million, noting the need for a comprehensive cost analysis early in the design process. As part of the City Council review of the FY 2012/13 year-end budget surplus discussed in December 2013, an additional $1.0 million was allocated recognizing continuing escalation of construction costs for a total revised budget of $17.2 million….

But a near-doubling?

The revised FY 2013/14 construction cost estimate…was developed without the testing of sub-surface conditions that have revealed significant degradation of the roadway and sub-surface, requiring significant excavation and reconstruction of the entire Boulevard.

Psomas has completed a comprehensive evaluation of the roadway condition and has developed project budget estimates for two scenarios ranging between $31 and $34 million.

Last fall, city staff was questioned by Blue-Ribbon committee members who were concerned about projected (and unanticipated) costs. Both Community Development Director Susan Healy Keene and consultant Psomas defended the $17 million estimate, but they also seemed a bit fuzzy when pressed on the details. Today it’s clear that they had good reason to hedge.

Moreover, the estimate “did not include or underestimated several necessary components of construction costs, including temporary traffic control, landscaping, and traffic signal modification,” according to the staff report. We’re no engineers, but shouldn’t such costs have been included in projections provided to the Blue-Ribbon Committee and Council?

As our city struggles to meet unfunded pension liabilities there isn’t much appetite for big-budget projects. Two recent public parking garage projects went way over budget and we now have to cover a $15 million parking fund deficit – money that will come right out of the general fund. We wonder: the $17 million projection strategically omit key costs to gain Council support?

“Recommended Change in Project Scope”

With costs doubling, transportation officials now retreat from recommending we rebuild the entire corridor. Instead the staff recommendation is that we treat this corridor as any ordinary roads project: rebuild only the eastern segment of Santa Monica Boulevard and defer reconstruction of the Moreno-to-Wilshire segment until some time later. The diminished project would “bring the overall project budget to a manageable magnitude” (as the staff report says).

In that plan, the “total preliminary cost” decreases by $5.2 million to $29 million. But we would only push that $5 million tab down the road (so to speak) to a time when costs will likely rise.

The upshot? Riders would live with a pothole-pocked corridor west of Wilshire for the foreseeable future. The particularly hazardous Wilshire-Santa Monica intersection would also forgo improvement…for several long years!

Possible Changes in Project Funding

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the “changed” scope of the project is that our city may tap new sources of funding to bankroll it. The staff report notes for example that deferring the Moreno-to-Wilshire segment would not only defer the expense but “provide the City additional time to accumulate funding sources (e.g., gas tax, Measure R) to contribute towards the projects.” (Note the plural.)

Most other jurisdictions would have brought state and federal money into a project of this size from the get-go. But City of Beverly Hills chose to go it alone in order to free ourselves of state and federal requirements concerning, say, multimodal transportation and contract terms. Why accept the strings if you don’t have to?

Now we appear to be rethinking the decision. And perhaps in line with the new thinking, the city in March asked the Federal Highway Administration about how we might accommodate bicycle lanes on the corridor. A March 19th letter to FHWA from Mayor John Mirisch (an bicycle lane supporter) asked:

The City Council is considering alternate configurations of the roadway, including bicycle lane options, and would like FHWA input on the following questions: 1. Do striped bicycle lanes improve safety? 2. Do striped bicycle lanes impede the flow of traffic? 3. Do striped bicycle lanes impact turns to/from side streets? 4. Are striped bicycle lanes preferable to wide curb lanes? 5. Are 11 foot vehicle travel lanes as safe as 12 foot lanes? 6. Do 11 foot vehicle travel lanes reduce the capacity of the roadway in comparison to 12 foot lanes? 7. Is there a minimum number of daily or peak period bicycle riders necessary to justify bicycle lanes? – Mayor John Mirisch

The Division Administrator from FHWA replied that the agency “applauds efforts to find ways to accommodate all road users.” Then the agency added pointedly:

We also recommend that you work with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) and to help find the most appropriate solutions for Santa Monica Boulevard. As you probably know, Caltrans has embraced a statewide Complete Streets policy and they have revised their Highway Design Manual and other policy documents to better address the needs of all road users. – FHWA

Of course, our transportation planner (singular) and our consultants (plural) should have been heeding complete streets policy guidance from the get-go. After all, we reminded them of it when the request-for-proposal was first drafted. Then again, they could have consulted the comments from many riders who attended the Blue-Ribbon process – good ideas that never even saw the light of day. Heck, we’ll put in a plug for our own city’s plans, which recommend that we plan for multimodal mobility. Complete streets should be easy!

More Conceptual Design Options

Design principles and cost aren’t the only uncertainties. More design alternatives than ever are in play in the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction process. In a sort-of rebuke of the efforts of the Blue-Ribbon Committee members, staff has now expanded the menu of alternatives to include choices that our committee was never shown. These include middle-range boulevard widths of 63 and 64 feet with even narrower median turn lanes than before.Because it is difficult to make sense of the alternatives as presented in the staff report, we’ve put them on a single annotated matrix for your convenience:

Boulevard profiles as presented in the staff report
Boulevard profiles as presented in the staff report (reorganized by Better Bike)

Note that ‘improved’ 63 and 64 foot profiles are new, and they use a 10-foot median/turning lane which liberates additional space at the curb for a sharable right lane. For example, the 63-foot profile gains a half-foot in the curb lane (15.5 feet) while the 64-foot profile gains (16-foot) curb lanes sufficiently wide to safely share, says our consultant.

They are more economical with the blacktop when compared to profiles provided to the Blue-Ribbon Committee in January:

Profiles from January
Profile alternatives as presented to the Blue-Ribbon committee in January

But none illustrates a bicycle lane. The other sticking point for riders: the FHWA recommends against a curb lane as wide as 16 feet because it could actually accommodate two passenger vehicles side-by-side – a sure invitation to an impatient Beverly Hills driver to hug the curb to pass slow traffic in order to turn right. And wouldn’t that put riders in danger. Besides, why make a lane 16 feet wide but not stripe a bicycle lane there?

The 64-foot middle-ground option may be the charm, however: to councilmembers who are reluctant to expand beyond today’s max of 63-feet it may be the palatable option. Indeed the focus of the Tuesday discussion may well turn on the merits of the 63-foot versus 64-foot profiles. Will they be willing to nibble even a foot of parkland in order to preserve the future opportunity to stripe bicycle lanes? Or is that even a foot too far to ensure rider safety? A letter from the Beverly Hills North Homeowners Association mailed to Beverly Hills households suggests that even a single foot is too much to ask for rider safety.

Next Step

The City Council meets on Tuesday afternoon at 2:30 pm in chambers to discuss the future of the corridor. Will Council give the go-ahead on a project with a reduced scope? Will they replicate the corridor we have today at a 60-foot width; standardize the boulevard at 63 feet; or go for the 64 foot width to preserve bicycle lanes? Will our city tap federal or state money for reconstruction? Will any staffer even speak up on behalf of complete streets? Tune in to Tuesday afternoon’s City Council study session to find out. We simply can’t know.

There is one question that we’d like answered: where do our public safety departments stand on bicycle lanes? In January, BHPD’s Sgt. Mader was inaccurately quoted in a project memo as advising against bicycle lanes. (The statement was recalled by at least one councilmember in the March 8th meeting.) But when asked, he conceded that his statement was only his perception and not the department’s position. And in any case, he said, it didn’t apply to project alternatives under discussion.

Beverly Gardens Park marked for trimming
Beverly Gardens Park marked for trimming by our consultants. See, a few feet ain’t that bad!

We welcome your attendance on Tuesday and especially your comments to Council (use our contacts cheat sheet). Our policymakers need to be reminded that officials have a responsibility to plan for the safety of all road users. Motorists’ sense of entitlement to the blacktop endangers the safety of both riders and walkers every day and their reliance on single-occupancy vehicle travel undermines our quality of life.