By Meredith Goldstein
June 5, 2005
NEWBURYPORT - The mayor and City Council's decision to paint over the bike lanes on High Street in Newburyport, less than a year after they were drawn, didn't come as a surprise to Kathy Rand, owner of the Natural Grocer.
Her initial concerns -- that the white, curbside lanes might eliminate 40 percent of parking spaces around her health food shop -- shifted after she saw how they were being used.
''I think it actually was a great idea but it was located in the wrong place," Rand said. ''Apparently, it wasn't just a bike path. I would see moms with their babies and people just walking on it like it was a path. I think there were a lot of reports of near misses."
The mayor and City Council decided last month to eliminate the lanes on High Street, one of the city's most heavily traveled thoroughfares, perhaps by the end of June.
The bike lanes were painted last September as part of a master plan for High Street, but without explicit City Council approval. Soon after, residents began to complain and several city councilors said they should have had the chance to review this aspect of the master plan, which changed traffic patterns.
At the time, Geordie Vining, a city planner, said his department did not know it needed council approval to create the lanes.
The City Council ultimately voted to test the bike lanes through next December, but Mayor Mary Anne Clancy, who originally supported bike lanes on High Street, vetoed that order last month.
Clancy told the City Council that the lanes, which run in both directions along High Street from the ''three roads" intersection to Olive Street and from Fruit Street to the Newbury line, hadn't worked out and weren't worth additional investment by the city for signs, study of the lanes, and public education. Her veto was upheld last week by the City Council.
The veto will not affect the rest of the master plan, which was spearheaded by the Planning Department, according to Heather Rowe, the mayor's assistant. The plan includes planting trees, sidewalk repairs, and creating crosswalks.
''When I took office and assumed responsibility of the High Street Master Plan, I incorrectly assumed that adequate outreach had been done and consensus built around the installation of the bike lanes since this plan was many months in the making," Clancy wrote in a May 25 letter to the council.
Clancy said in her letter that she has asked the city's Department of Public Works to estimate how much it will cost to cover the lanes, and that she plans to talk to the council about funding sometime this month. It cost Newburyport $60,000 to paint the lanes, a sum that covered the bike lanes and other High Street restriping, such as median lines.
Clancy is not sure if both the inside and the outside lane stripes will be covered. Rowe said that if one of the bike lane lines is left exposed, it will be to save money or because there is no need to remove it.
Shortly after the lanes were created in September, some motorists complained they didn't understand the rules -- when bikers had the right of way, who was allowed to use the lanes, and when parking was allowed on High Street.
At the time, Clancy said the city was experiencing a ''learning curve," an opinion echoed by Josh Lehman, the state's bicycle-pedestrian coordinator. Lehman said this past winter that Newburyport may have been the second community in Massachusetts to officially adopt bike lanes. Nationally, he said, communities have needed time to adjust to traffic changes.
Over time, he said, Newburyport naysayers might come to embrace the bike lanes.
In Cambridge, where bike lanes have existed for about 10 years, it took residents time to get used to a designated space for bicyclists, said Cara Seiderman, the city's transportation program manager.
''There was a getting-used-to-it period," Seiderman said. ''I think it didn't last that long because people really saw that nothing really happened. It only changed it in that people were more orderly."
Those who have supported the lanes in Newburyport are angered by the decision to cover up the stripes after just a few months. Supporters have told the mayor's office that the lanes improved traffic and have made riding safer for bicyclists."
''I just wrote the mayor a long e-mail voicing my extreme disappointment and my complete and utter bafflement at the current turn of events," said Mary Eaton, a bike lane advocate, a day after the City Council upheld Clancy's veto. ''It seems inexplicable to me. I'm utterly confused."
Eaton said she questions whether the mayor has the power to simply cover up the bike lane stripes, since the state approved the city's plans for High Street -- plans that included the bike lanes -- when it gave Newburyport its annual allocation of street improvement funds.
Although state approval was needed to create the lanes, Rowe said, the state did not require them to be installed or maintained in perpetuity. The state funding used for the project was not specifically designated for the lanes, she said.
Eaton disputed the mayor's assertion that there wasn't enough input from the city before the lines were painted.
''This was a six-year process," she said of the development of the High Street master plan. ''This plan didn't just come out of nowhere."
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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