In 2012, over two years after the Anchorage Bicycle Plan was unanimously passed, bicyclists began asking “when will the city start putting in bike lanes?” Bike lanes are a vital step to making our city safer for both motorists and bicyclists and making Anchorage a more bicycle-friendly city. Installing bike lanes and implementing the Anchorage Bicycle Plan is a key element of our work at Bike Anchorage. Frustrated by the delay, Bike Anchorage (Bicycle Commuters of Anchorage at that time) took on the charge and led a campaign to get the ball rolling. With the deft guidance of board member Todd Logan, we led a campaign in the fall of 2012 to increase the amount of federal dollars spent on bike plan implementation. This was no easy feat. After multiple meetings, we saw the moment. We would rally our supporters to flood AMATS with comments demanding that more money be spent on bike plan implementation. AMATS is the entity responsible for determining how our federal dollars are spent on transportation projects in Anchorage. It consists of both state and municipal staff.
After submitting 125 comments and getting over 35 people to attend a pivotal meeting where decision-makers could decide whether to increase the allocation for bike plan implementation, we saw success. In November 2012, AMATS increased the allocation from $1 million to $2.3 million for the 2013 and 2014 AMATS Transportation Implementation Projects (TIP) budget. The TIP identifies all the transportation projects in Anchorage that are funded for each upcoming year.
This was a huge victory. The money would help us jump start the Bike Plan into action by striping and marking core route bike lanes. We had already identified the core routes in the Plan, as well as those areas that had a higher bike-car collision rate. The $2.3 million would go to the “low hanging fruit” – projects that were inexpensive because they did not require any fussing around with right-of-ways or widening roads. The projects we selected included roads already wide enough to accommodate the bike lane set out in the Bike Plan. We thought we were on the right track with $2.3 million dollars to buy some paint and get to work.
The first major setback was the news that federal dollars require environmental evaluation. We knew this going in but the type of evaluation for bike infrastructure is not the same type of detailed environmental review that projects like the Knik Arm Bridge or the Highway to Highway project go through. Bike lanes actually fall under a term called “categorical exclusion” meaning that they don’t need significant environmental review to satisfy the federal requirements.
Nonetheless, we were told on numerous occasions by agency staff that the review would set implementation back. We tried to be patient but it was difficult to watch this inefficient process proceed at a snail’s pace. In February 2013, at an AMATS’s Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC) meeting, we were updated on the implementation project. The news got worse.
We were apprised that the $2.3 million dollars would not go to any actual paint or signs. Instead, a decision was made (we aren’t sure by who or how) that all the money would go to design work. This news fell like a ton of bricks. I expressed frustration and disappointment at the Advisory Committee meetings noting that those that commented and asked for more funding expected actual bike lanes.
Putting those frustrations aside, Bike Anchorage and the BPAC focused on what we could do to make the most of this. In September 2013, the BPAC got another update. The design work would commence. The BPAC submitted a prioritized project list of key core routes to be implemented. We knew things were moving slowly but at least they were moving.
In May 2014, almost two years into a process that seemed like it had no end in sight, the BPAC was again apprised by the Department of Transportation that $2.3 million from the 2013/14 allocations would go to design and planning efforts and that a consultant to do this work was finally under contract. Things finally seemed to be moving. The August 2014 BPAC meeting included an update that the contract was awarded to CRW Engineering, a long-time supporter of biking in Anchorage. CRW has had a bike station as part of Bike Anchorage’s Bike Fridays and Bike to Work Day for several years. This was great news. In November 2014, the BPAC was again updated that CRW was moving forward. While longer than we hoped, things were moving forward. And there was even optimism that we might see a few bike lanes in 2015.
Flash forward to March 4th, 2015. While updating the BPAC once again, DOT made unclear references regarding how much money had been spent. I asked pointed questions to DOT to understand exactly how much money CRW had to get design work done. After going around and around with no straight answer to my question, DOT staff stated that only $1million dollars was obligated. It was not clear what happened to the other $1.3 million but the fear was it was gone. This was shocking news. No one from DOT or the Municipality had ever stated that there was a problem with obligating funds. This was even news to AMATS staff. A follow up meeting was immediately scheduled for March 18th so AMATS staff could get more answers and update the BPAC.
Expecting disappointment, I attended the March 18th meeting and attempted to maintain my composure. Bike Anchorage had put a lot of work into increasing the allocation for Bike Plan implementation. This would be a huge step to making our streets safer for all users. I had anxiously waited for over two years to see the city take actual demonstrative steps to putting bike lanes down on the pavement. I knew the news would be bad.
The news came with a precursor from AMATS staff that it isn’t about pointing fingers. We learned — two years into a project and for the first time — that not only was the money not obligated but that because it is now 2015, the window for obligating that money had come and gone. How could this be?
I asked DOT and AMATS staff questions about when funds must be obligated. The 2014 funds had to be obligated by September 30, 2014 (the end of the fiscal year). But why were we updated in November that the project was proceeding with $2.3 million for design work? DOT could not explain why this was the case. One DOT staffer said it wasn’t a big deal because the DOT is behind the Bike Plan and there are funds set out in the 2015-2018 TIP budgets. That news was not well received by myself or others on the BPAC. Another DOT staffer clarified that the funds were not lost – that they would be used elsewhere. This also was not well received. For purposes of installing bike lanes and making our city safer these funds were lost, plain and simple. The final comment from DOT was a crowning moment – a DOT staffer said, and I quote, it was a “little snafu”. Yep, a little snafu. I know what your thinking. It happens to all of us. You think you have over a million dollars but forget to spend it. So it is taken away and you think, oh well, it is just a little snafu and not a big deal. Wrong. This is a big deal.
There are a couple of big problems here. The first is the lack of accountability. If I didn’t ask pointed questions, when, if ever, would we have found out that $1.3 million dollars was not spent? Why did DOT act like this is no big deal? If they can so easily lose track of $1.3 million, what does it say about other projects? Second, losing $1.3 million dollars means we will have less than half the number of projects designed and shovel ready. The set back is huge. The funding in the coming years could have gone to striping but now we will be even further out from implementing the Bike Plan and installing bike lanes along key routes.
In November 2012, I wrote a blog titled “BCA Supporters Make $1.3 Million Dollar Difference.” While we may have lost that $1.3 million dollars, I still think that title holds true. You, our supporters did make a difference. And you can again. We won’t quit or give up or settle for losing $1.3 million dollars. I hope you all will be there to support Bike Anchorage in our efforts to find more dollars, federal or state, to implement the Bike Plan so our streets are a little safer for everyone. I ended that November 2012 blog “Thank you — and stay tuned — the work isn’t done yet.” Two plus years later, clearly not. There is much to do and you can count on us to be the voice for a safer, better biking city.