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Is a bike lane backlash brewing over St. Pete's MLK Jr. Street N?

A man uses the bike lane on 1st Ave S on Friday, July 13, 2018. St. Petersburg plans to resurface Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street from Fifth Ave. N to 34th Ave. N later this year. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times]
Published Jul. 13, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — In the next month, the city is poised to launch one of the most ambitious bike lane projects in the Tampa Bay area.

But some local business owners want to stop construction of those bike lanes along two miles of one of the city's busiest roads, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N, saying it will be bad for business. It's a pattern that has repeated itself in Tampa and across the nation.

There are many successful bike lane projects nationwide, including in Madison, Wisc., Portland, Ore., and New York City. And then there are projects stymied by the battle between the needs of those who drive vs. those who don't, bicyclists and pedestrians.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Tampa rejects bike lanes on Bay to Bay, suggesting neighborhood streets instead

The latest bike lane loss was in Tampa, where a plan to add them to a mile-long stretch of busy Bay to Bay Boulevard was vetoed by Mayor Bob Buckhorn in March over some residents' fears that it would stifle traffic.

The next effort is being launched by St. Petersburg: The King Street project is one of the first in a series lined up by the city's "complete streets" initiative. That philosophy considers the bicyclist and pedestrian just as important as the driver.

"Forever, really, when people talked about transportation, it was cars and that's all anybody focused on," Mayor Rick Kriseman said.

"(Complete streets) is looking at everything more equally and recognizing when creating a community that's more pedestrian friendly, more bicycle friendly, more mass transit friendly, what that does for your community."

But petitions and vocal opposition from King Street businesses have already convinced city officials to hold off on the project this month and seek middle ground with the opposition.

Bud Risser, who owns the Shell gas station at King Street and 22nd Avenue N, said he feels misled. He accused St. Petersburg of trying to keep the bike lane project under wraps by labeling it a "resurfacing project."

Those who oppose the project believe that was intentionally done to hide from public scrutiny the fact that the bike lanes will slim parts of King Street down to one lane.

"I got blindsided by this, and I'm reasonably active, more active in the community than most," Risser said. "They're talking about this as a resurfacing project, and I'm sorry, but that's not an accident.

"They're not telling everyone what it really is because they don't want a ruckus. Well, they're going to get one."

• • •

Actually, the city plans to both resurface King Street and add bike lanes.

St. Petersburg will spend close to $1 million to convert one lane between Fourth and 30th Avenues N into extra-wide bike lanes that would run on both sides of the road, said Director of Transportation Evan Mory. Construction will likely start in August and finish by the end of the year.

Once completed, the new lanes would be a key connector for the city's growing bike network, providing a north-south link to east-west bike lanes already installed along Fourth, Fifth and 30th Avenues N. The city currently has about 130 miles of bike lanes — including the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail — and hopes to add 100 miles more in the next two decades or longer.

TAMPA BAY TIMES REPORT: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why.

King Street currently has five lanes of traffic — two in each direction and a center turn lane. The city will remove one lane from certain segments of the north and southbound streets, creating a wider-than-normal bike lane in each direction along with an extra buffer space between the cyclists and drivers.

However, no section of King Street will be reduced to just one lane in both directions. Either the north or southbound lane will retain two lanes.

Cars traveling northbound would be left with one lane from Fourth until about 10th Avenue N, where they'd gain the second lane back. Coming from the other direction, southbound traffic would have one lane between 30th and around 9th Avenues North, then go back to two lanes south of there.

The center turn lane, for the most part, will be unchanged, Mory said.

He said the city started its public outreach campaign for resurfacing King Street in November. It was at that meeting that some citizens suggested the city wasn't going far enough to slow down traffic on the busy corridor, Mory said. Instead, people suggested reducing lanes from 30th to Fourth Avenues N.

Several businesses started objecting to the loss of a lane soon after, but Mory said the city heard far more support than outcry. There were more opinions in studies through February, then the city picked the current plan.

And he said business owners did attend those meetings and expressed concerns as early as November.

Risser and others, such as Trip's Diner at 2339 King Street N, have hung fliers in windows warning customers of dramatic changes and the city's supposedly suspect motives.

"The City is doing its best to hide what will happen," the sheet said. "Make no mistake … your favorite business may be forced to CLOSE!"

Opponents suggest adding bike lanes to Seventh or 16th Streets N — north-south roads that run parallel to King Street — arguing those roads are the more logical and safer choices.

Risser fears that convenience businesses like his gas station will lose business if King Street loses traffic. And what if traffic backs up?

Then, he said, commuters will start using Fourth Street N to get around — and take their business with them.

• • •

First, the city denies Risser's allegations.

Kriseman said the resurfacing and bike lane projects were combined to save money. He said the city was not trying to hide the bike lane plan.

The city postponed the project twice to get more feedback, Mory said, particularly from those who were concerned that things were moving too fast. And though Mory and his team did hear from some of the businesses against the project early on, he said they heard from hundreds more people who support the project, including business owners.

St. Petersburg received a petition from 64 business owners asking officials to halt the project.

But the city said it received another petition 10 times that size — 665 signatures — from area residents who want the project to move forward. Manye were concerned about safety in the area.

Second, Kriseman said the city is considering adding bike lanes to Seventh and 16th Streets N, anyway — but in addition to, not in place of, the King Street bike lanes.

WHAT'S NEXT: Tampa Bay's Transportation Future

The reason why King Street makes so much sense for bike lanes, the mayor said, is the mixed-used development along that corridor. Moving the bike lanes to a residential street such as Seventh Avenue N shifts cyclists and pedestrians away from businesses they might frequent. And 16th Street N doesn't connect to the heart of downtown as well as King Street does.

A traffic study by Kimley-Horn showed the road currently carries about 18,000 cars a day. The city does not expect the changes to drop traffic below 2016 levels, or about 17,000 cars a day.

The loss of a lane along segments of north and south King Street, Mory said, is projected to add 90 seconds to a commute during peak travel hours.

The mayor said that trade-off is worth it to make the street safer.

"Often times, you're talking about a minute or less adding to somebody's travel time," Kriseman said, "which is really not a big deal when you think about it."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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