By Kal Weinstein
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — The Brook Road bike lanes are back on track after seven months of advocacy helped thwart the efforts of two Richmond City Council members to stop the project at least temporarily.
More than 50 residents showed up for the final vote Monday evening to speak against an ordinance to prohibit the project, which was introduced by 2nd District Councilwoman Kim Gray and Council Vice President Chris Hilbert, who represents the 3rd District.
“I want the vehicles on Brook Road to be forced to drive the speed limit as a positive result of the road diet that comes along with this bike lane,” said Michael Simon, a Brook Road resident. “This is exactly what a growing progressive city needs.”
The project was included in the city’s 2015 Bicycle Master Plan, though the concept began almost 20 years ago. City planners will redesign Brook Road to a one-vehicular traffic lane in each direction between Azalea Avenue and West Charity Street, a stretch of 3.5 miles.
The north-south Brook Road corridor connects other pieces of bicycle infrastructure. Similar to the Franklin Street bike lane implemented last year, the road will be reconfigured to include a floating parking lane that acts as a buffer between vehicles and cyclists.
Craig Bieber, liaison to Gray, said the councilwoman is actually a supporter of bike lanes but believes the city failed to get adequate input from the residents and business owners along Brook Road who would be affected by the changes. Bieber said Gray had heard from many residents who were previously unaware of the plans and had concerns once they learned about the details.
“She supports bike lanes,” Bieber said. “But she thought the particular bike lanes need some work and some constituent input.”
City project leaders point to the outreach and community meetings held over two years concerning the plans. The most recent one was attended by more than 200 people last Sept. 11.
Gray and Hilbert’s ordinance was met with loud objections since it was introduced in June, with many saying the project is needed to help protect the community’s growing number of bicyclists.
“I’ve never in my life been able to ride my bike more than a few blocks from my house; it just isn’t safe,” said Stella Davies, a 16-year-old Maggie Walker High School student who spoke Monday night. “Please vote no on this ordinance and give me and others like me a safe route to school.
Max Hepp-Buchanan, who leads the advocacy group Bike Walk RVA and is a father of two, asked City Council members to imagine their 6-year-old child trying to cross Brook Road twice a day. That would make them realize that safety improvements are needed to “slow down traffic, shorten crossing distances and increase visibility,” he said.
“I think the safety of my kids is too important to maintain the status quo. People will be able to park or drive on Brook; they’ll just have to in a safer manner,” Hepp-Buchanan said.
In comparison to the long line of bike advocates that stretched out of the council chamber, around 15 constituents showed to speak in favor of the ordinance. Both homeowners and business owners raised concerns about the project’s impact.
Jonathan Davis, who said he has lived in Northside for 30 years, asked the council to stop the project instead of creating “a bridge to nowhere.”
“Not every road needs a bike lane, just like every intersection does not need a traffic light or crosswalk,” Davis said.
A Brook Road business owner of 45 years said he was concerned about the strain the plan would put on employee parking, access and customer service.
“We have over 100 vehicles a day coming into our facility, and this bike lane will create a hazard,” he said.
Before the vote, council members gave their final remarks. Councilman Parker Agelasto, who represents the 5th District, said he was frustrated with the recurring cycle of funding plans that never come to fruition, and he compared Richmond to a hamster stuck on a wheel.
“Frankly, I think this a lesson learned for all of us that we do need to understand plans,” Agelasto said.
A collective sigh of relief was heard in the chambers after City Council voted 6-3 to reject the ordinance — seven months after it was introduced and repeatedly continued in committee.
According to spokeswoman Angela Fountain, the Department of Public Utilities is currently researching the estimated start date of the bike lane. Gas utility work is currently underway along the Northside corridor.
The city will continue work on its Bicycle Master Plan, which calls for 135 miles of new bikeways by 2025. Now that the bike lanes along Brook Road have been given the green light to go forward, Bieber said Gray is hopeful that residents along that road will be given more say about the plans.