A bike-friendly redesign of Willamette Street is moving to the Eugene City Council amid concerns from the unions that represent firefighters and bus drivers.
The biking-conducive design would change Willamette from 24th to 28th avenues from its present four through travel lanes and replace them with one vehicle travel lane in each direction, a center turn lane and bicycle lanes on both sides of the street.
Bicyclists favor the design, and the city's traffic consultants say it would improve safety for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians while delaying traffic for an average of 30 seconds during commute hours.
However, some area merchants don't buy the safety conclusions and say the lane eliminations will cause traffic congestion that will compel customers to shop elsewhere.
The top brass in the Eugene Springfield Fire Department and Lane Transit District aren't opposed to the bike lane configuration.
But the leaders of the two unions that represent bus drivers and firefighters say the present four-lane configuration is safer than the proposed three-lane design.
Mike Barnebey, president of the Lane Professional Firefighters Association, said he is "deeply concerned" that eliminating travel lanes will slow firefighter emergency response times.
Fires can double in size in 30 seconds, he said.
"A delay in traffic by 30 seconds for the general commuter is not that big of an issue, but for fire and emergency response it ends up being very significant," Barnebey said.
The city is studying the redesign now because it is preparing to repave the segment by 2018. Changes to the street could be made as part of the repaving.
City transportation engineers on April 16 are expected to suggest that the City Council approve the temporary restriping of the four-block stretch to see how the bicycle-friendly design would work during a trial run. It's unclear how long the trial would last.
Two other design options will be presented for the council's consideration. One would retain the present four vehicle travel lanes without bike lanes. The other would have two vehicle travel lanes and a center turn lane, and widened sidewalks to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians.
Drivers are unpredictable
The busy stretch of Willamette Street in south Eugene is a well-traveled corridor by firefighters and paramedics dispatched from fire stations at 13th and 33rd avenues.
Barnebey, a fire captain, said motorists can react unpredictably when approached by fire engines and ambulances responding to emergencies.
A street with two travel lanes in each direction is better than a street with one travel lane in each direction, he said.
When emergency vehicles approach, some motorists don't pull to the right like they are supposed to, Barnebey said. Instead, some drivers speed up or pull over to the left. On a three-lane Willamette Street, the latter maneuver would put cars in the center turn lane, which is supposed to be available for emergency vehicles, he said.
LTD has seven bus stops in the area. Now, when LTD buses pull to the curb to pick up or drop off passengers, cars can get around the buses by moving into the next lane.
But with only one through travel lane on each side of the street, motorists wanting to get around a stopped bus could drive around it by moving into the center turn lane, said Carl Faddis, executive board officer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757.
"Sometimes it gets a little dicey when motorists are getting pretty close to our bus," he said.
If bike lanes put more bicyclists on Willamette Street, that also would mean more potential conflicts between buses and bikes, Faddis said.
"We don't have any animosity toward bicyclists," he said. "Nevertheless, some bicyclists almost make us crap our pants because of the things they do."
LTD spokesman Andy Vobora said the agency has told city officials that it can operate buses in either the four- or three-lane configuration.
"We provided the city detailed information about elements of the three-lane design that could cause issues for other vehicle traffic and we asked for slight modifications of the lane width to provide a little more room for the buses," he said.
"But there was nothing in that that would affect our ability to operate effectively and safely."
Opponents focus on safety
Willamette Street business owner David Nelkin, who wants to retain four lanes, said the City Council should heed the concerns from the firefighters and bus drivers.
"We have been touting safety from the beginning," he said.
Nelkin said he doesn't believe that safety will be improved for motorists and bicyclists with bike lanes on the street.
"If you have a cyclist going down the street and you have a car turning into a driveway, there is going to be more interaction between bicyclists and cars," he said.
Nelkin favors making bike-friendly improvements to Portland and Oak streets in the neighborhoods on either side of Willamette Street.
"That way, we have some separation and some added buffer of safety," he said.
George McGuiness, an architect and husband of the owner of a Willamette Street business, Metropol Bakery, has developed a plan to keep four travel lanes while providing a 14-foot-wide sidewalk on the east side of Willamette for use by pedestrians and bicyclists.
Under McGuiness' plan, the eight feet of the sidewalk closest to the street would be reserved for bicyclists, with the six feet farther from the street used by pedestrians.
Asked whether he favors McGuiness' plan, Nelkin said: "I am supportive of any plan that keeps four lanes on the street."
Faddis, of the bus drivers' union, said a trial run of the three-lane design would make sense, but only if an objective analysis was performed on the trial results to see how well it works.
The union is "leery of political manipulation" of the trial results to support a three-lane design, he said.
"The bottom line is, what would we be doing with the trial results?" he said.
"If it gets to be pretty silly on the street, that should be enough to say, 'Let's pull the plug on it.'"