SM Blvd Comes Back for Council Review

Santa Monica Boulevard gardens trim line
Wouldn’t you trade a few feet of ragged grass for boulevard bicycle lanes?

If you’ve been on your seat-edge waiting to find out what Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills will look like for the next half-century, you’ll wait a bit longer. Tomorrow City Council will defer a decision on the corridor’s conceptual design as it again hears about the project budget and why, low-balled by staff, it has doubled since the fall to $35m. How will the project might funded? How wide should the boulevard be? Wide enough to include bicycle lanes? We’ll know more on Tuesday.

While this ongoing saga won’t come to a close soon enough for riders who brave this key crosstown corridor, we need to focus on the project decisions that will shape Santa Monica Boulevard going forward. Should the corridor be expanded incrementally to afford class II bicycle lanes, now or in the future; and should the city reconstruct the corridor in one piece or break it up into two phases? At City Council’s Tuesday study session (2:30pm) we’ll likely get answers to these pressing questions even if we don’t see a final conceptual design for the corridor materialize until later.

Project Phasing

The staff report for Tuesday’s meeting presents a ‘recommended project funding plan’ that would have the city split the Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction project into two parts. The first phase would reconstruct the segment between Doheney and Wilshire boulevard on the project’s current timetable. (The timetable has slipped repeatedly over the years, though prompt council action now may yet produce a completed phase one by the end of 2015.)

The second phase would come later, however, and perhaps much later. One rationale for deferring phase two is that adjacent development projects (like the Hilton hotel) will include traffic mitigation measures; so maybe it’s better to address the western segment of the boulevard at one time when past and present ‘improvements’ can be incorporated.

Gateway site aerial view
Gateway parcels to the west of Wilshire Boulevard: a golden opportunity for active transportation found and lost.

A related rationale is that the adjacent Western Gateway area (south of the boulevard west of Wilshire) is still under discussion. That major set of projects will likely affect traffic and flow on Santa Monica boulevard. (Read more about the Western Gateway, pictured at right.)

An then there is the cost. At $35 million the project threatens to break the bank. For one thing, the city chose not to seek federal or state money for a key regional corridor reconstruction. Unfortunately that limits our options. And one option on the table it to break the reconstruction up to whittle down the upfront price today but later we would be adding to total project costs.

Punting on a full-corridor reconstruction presents a couple of challenges for multimodal mobility advocates, however. First, in downsizing today’s project, Council may well downsize our ambitions for tomorrow’s Santa Monica Boulevard. Should the city fail to consider how the corridor in its entirely will serve the city for decades, we will merely cement in place an auto-dominated roadway.

Consider that the default option: like the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue Ribbon Committee members who were concerned only about moving cars, there are members on our Council that feel today’s boulevard is simply good enough. But those of us who ride, or will ride, a bicycle will greatly lament that lack of forethought. Indeed we told both the committee and Council that should the corridor not incorporate bicycle lanes we’ll have missed a real opportunity to realize a future multimodal Santa Monica Boulevard. In our view, breaking up the project into phases might well lock-in a boulevard without lanes.

Second, even if we afford room for lanes on phase I (or even actually include them), phase II might not. Many things can go awry between now and whenever phase two is undertaken. A future Council might decide that multimodal mobility is an experiment that simply has failed, for example.

(And that’s not far-fetched Consider that Vice-Mayor Gold has made noises in this regard about the city’s Pilot Program, which has delivered only a few segments of class II lanes and sharrows in Beverly Hills, but evidently too much to stomach for unreconstructed, old-school auto-minded policymakers. Remember that Dr. Gold will be our next Mayor should he be reelected in March.)

And our councilmembers (or a future Council) might just allow Western Gateway developers to build right out to their property line, robbing the community of setbacks and, more important, undermining an opportunity to exact a land dedication necessary for the incorporation of class II bicycle lanes on Santa Monica.

Less tangibly, phasing the project could sap our councilmembers today of their political courage to make this key business triangle corridor multimodal. After all, why get out in front with a politically-sensitive proposal to incrementally-widen the boulevard for lanes if you’re playing small ball with a phased project? Already there exists support for a less-is-more approach to reconstruction: we’ve heard councilmembers ask about repaving the blacktop as-it-is. But that conservative approach won’t make for safe rider passage or deliver on our city’s plans for multimodal mobility.

Our third major objection to a phased project is that the first (eastern) phase would stop short of the Santa Monica/Wilshire intersection – a juncture unsafe for all road users but disproportionately hazardous to riders. Under the phasing plan it wouldn’t receive any improvements until the Hilton or adjacent project substantially nears completion, according to Aaron Kunz, Deputy Director for Transportation. But Hilton mitigation won’t get us to a multimodal future either. ‘Improvements’ (like an additional turn lane) are designed to increase vehicle throughput. That’s an unfortunate legacy of adhering to a Level-of-Service approach to building for capacity rather than managing transportation demand and it will not to get folks on bicycles. (Read more about what to do with this intersection.)

At this meeting we expect Council to direct staff and our consultant Psomas to proceed with Santa Monica Boulevard reconstruction in two phases. Notably, the staff report doesn’t even mention the single-phase option anymore. Phase two (from Wilshire to Moreno) would then be deferred to some indeterminate future date. That leaves the width issue.

Boulevard Width & Bicycle Lanes

Two aspects of the project have proved politically-sticky: the width of the boulevard and the inclusion of bicycle lanes. While the prospect of bicycle lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard inexplicably engenders community opposition, the proposal to incrementally widen the boulevard (as recommended by the Santa Monica Boulevard Blue Ribbon Committee) sends NIMBYs into fits of apoplexy.

Today the boulevard ranges from 60-63 feet. Fittingly, one objective of the reconstruction is to rationalize the corridor at a consistent width. But how wide? The current staff report puts alternatives at 60, 63, 64 and 66 feet in width. Building to less than 64 feet would preclude bicycle lanes, according to Psomas. (Even at wider widths, though, the consultant has recommended not to stripe class II lanes. Splitting the difference, city transportation staff has long floated the idea of a single-direction bicycle lane (westbound) with an eastbound alignment never clearly specified. (Of course we can’t support that concept without more details.)

So whither Bicycle Lanes? That will depend on boulevard width. At this meeting we expect Council to revisit the bicycle lane issue only indirectly by deciding on a finished width for Santa Monica. Less than 64 feet could preclude class II lanes entirely – at least according to our consultants – while a width at or above 64′ could preserve that option.

When the issue was next heard by Council in April, any talk about boulevard width and bicycle lanes was swamped by skepticism on the dais about staff project management. (Recall that fuzzy figures offered by the Community Development Department greatly underestimated the cost.) That is, when it came time for Council to talk conceptual design, the cost issue had already derailed the discussion. With the cost discussion hopefully wrapping up at this meeting, perhaps we can get back to substantive decisions like width and eventually lanes.

Whether or not to expand the boulevard sufficiently to accommodate bicycle lanes is the key decision point at this meeting. We could see the multimodal mobility option all-but-tossed out by Council at this meeting. Or we could see width established at 64′ in order to keep the lanes option open. Bike lane supporters are encouraged to attend to remind City Council provides that we need a 64-foot minimum width in order to include bicycle lanes (or at least keep open the possibility).

Santa Monica Boulevard road conditionsWe also want to remind Council that the safety hazards built-in to the Santa Monica/Wilshire intersection must be addressed sooner, rather than later; and that regardless of project decisions at this meeting, the Santa Monica corridor needs some repair immediately to ensure safer transit for riders.

Read about the project on the city’s site or, better yet, consult Better Bike’s much more detailed SM blvd project page or project-related posts for more information.) Council didn’t vote on bicycle lanes or boulevad width.

We Have Done Our Part

We multimodal mobility advocates have already done our due diligence. We’ve attended four Santa Monica Boulevard Blue Ribbon Committee meetings. Committee members received more than two hundred comments and the vast majority came from lane supporters. (The committee subsequently recommended that Council include bicycle lanes.) Then the Council heard an earful from lane supporters at the March 4th meeting.  Yet there three of our five councilmembers swatted away our safety concerns. Only then-Mayor Mirisch was a strong supporter of lanes; today’s Mayor Bosse appeared to lean positive too. But two out of three ain’t enough.

What should we expect from this meeting? If history is any guide, councilmembers will punt on Santa Monica Boulevard by embracing phased construction. They probably won’t allow sufficient width for bicycle lanes. And they’ll likely leave that wrong to be righted by a future council a decade or more later. You see, Beverly Hills is, fundamentally, a backward-looking city; we prize a “small town feel” yet cling tenaciously to an outmoded, auto-dominant paradigm that is more fitting for a suburb than a city in an urban region of 15 million people.

We urge today’s Council to think ahead toward a multimodal mobility future – like our own plans say we should – rather than have to remedy a  a decade later. We’ll see you there on Tuesday at 2:30 pm in Council Chambers.