DUNEDIN — The city has slammed the brakes on a contentious plan to paint bike lanes along Pinehurst Road.
The Dunedin City Commission voted 3-2 Thursday night to reject a $266,000 federal Safe Routes to School grant that would have funded the project, along with $234,000 in Penny for Pinellas taxes. The decision puts to rest months of debate over attempts to extend bicyclist safety measures along the corridor.
The money will be returned to the Florida Department of Transportation ahead of the Dec. 5 deadline that FDOT gave city officials to come up with a plan for the state grant. The funds were initially earmarked for another bike safety project that was shot down by residents in July. FDOT told Dunedin officials they couldn't use the grant for a similar project in another part of the city, so Dunedin had two options: Build the bike lanes or give the money back.
The decision dismayed Vice Mayor Ron Barnette and Commissioner Julie Scales, who threw their support behind the plan to add 4-foot-wide bike lanes to each side of Pinehurst, between Michigan Boulevard and San Christopher Drive. Barnette also sought additional safety measures, including color-highlighted lanes, signs and a study aimed at possibly lowering the road's speed limit.
"We have people that bicycle and if we can make it safer, I think we should," Scales said.
Added Barnette: "It's high time some of our tax money came back to the city, especially for the purpose of assisting safety."
But Commissioner David Carson said he has never seen students biking during his neighborhood visits to monitor the controversial Patricia Avenue road closure. He called spending a half-million dollars on a 1-mile stretch of bike lanes that people were unlikely to use a "waste of money."
Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski, who has a young son, added that she'd "bet my job" that no parent would allow their child to ride in the street.
Like Carson, she supports the citywide bicycle master plan unveiled last week, but she called it "disingenuous" to use a Safe Routes to School grant for a project that would mostly benefit adults. The city's Penny funds, she said, would be better spent directly helping San Jose Elementary solve traffic problems.
Furthermore, she and Carson said they highly doubted that residents realized the project would require six months of construction to widen the road.
About 60 Pinehurst area residents in July angrily shot down plans to widen the sidewalk to install an 8-foot-wide trail for bicyclists and pedestrians, in part because they'd just endured a yearlong road improvement project.
"Going 4 feet into their yards is worse than we were talking about before," Carson said. "If we vote to do this, they're going to come unglued."
That left Mayor Dave Eggers, who'd supported the measure at last week's bicycle master plan workshop, to break the tie.
A torn Eggers ultimately sided with Carson and Bujalski, saying he was concerned by officials' inability to poll residents by the Dec. 5 deadline and the possibility that the lanes would go unused. He also said he's not keen on accepting federal dollars in this economy.
Eggers, however, said he still believes in the city's master plan to eventually connect all the city's parks, schools, recreation facilities, waterfront, downtown and other areas to the Pinellas Trail via dedicated bicycle lanes, sidewalks and multi-use paths. Officials say such paths reduce the environmental impact of vehicles, promote health and provide safe routes for bicyclists and pedestrians.
"My thought is there's still work to be done," Eggers said. "Whatever we do, we need to have a lot more outreach to get folks turned on about bicycles."
About a half-dozen people turned out Thursday in support of the initiative. After the vote, Tom Ferraro of the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization's bicycle advisory committee told commissioners that they were bowing to pressure from a small neighborhood and ignoring the greater good of the entire community.
Eggers replied that the city's approach, not the neighborhood, is to blame. He compared the neighborhood's infuriation to what city officials and residents experienced at the state's abandoned plan to put campsites on Honeymoon Island without any prior discussion.
"I agree with you, I do think there's something to 'You build it, they will come,' so I'm not ruling out bike lanes," Eggers said. "If it's important enough to do, we'll find the money to do it."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153.