PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Dozens of people who live on or near Mount Pleasant Avenue took their frustration straight to the city planners Tuesday night, condemning a plan to add a two-way bike lane or “urban trail” to their street.
The gathering at Mount Pleasant High School was meant to be an informational session with the city planning department about the urban trail project, but it turned into a mass airing of grievances as neighbor after neighbor passed around a microphone and said why they don’t want to see the project become a reality.
“This is not a plan, it’s an ill-conceived concept that has already failed in the city,” said Fr. Robert Forcier of St. Augustine Church.
Churchgoers have been among those opposing the plan, which would remove parking on one side of the street to make way for the two-way bike lanes.
The “failure” that Forcier referenced is the installation, and subsequent removal, of two-way bike lanes on Eaton Street last year. The debacle cost city taxpayers more than $120,000.
“Anyone who had the misfortune of driving down Eaton Street … would know that it was not for safety’s sake, but it created new safety issues,” Forcier said.
The proposed bike lanes, which can also be used for walking, running, scootering or skateboarding, are part of Mayor Jorge Elorza’s Great Streets initiative, which includes a master plan for urban trails. The final plan was unveiled Monday.
On Monday, Elorza said Providence is “20 years late to the party” on creating a connected, bikeable city.
“I think change is difficult,” he said in response to concern from residents.
The neighbors at Tuesday’s meeting appeared outraged that Elorza didn’t attend, shouting “where’s the mayor!” as Elorza’s planning director Bonnie Nickerson addressed the crowd.
State Rep. Ray Hull and City Councilor Jo-Ann Ryan also criticized the mayor for not attending the meeting.
“We don’t want it,” said Hull, a Democrat who lives on Mount Pleasant Avenue on the side of the street where the bike lanes would be installed. “Is the mayor here? Not to embarrass him, but I will. He’s not here.”
Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for Elorza, said he was attending Providence’s “business open house,” which was being held at the same time at a municipal building downtown. Multiple members of Elorza’s administration were at the Mount Pleasant meeting to answer questions from neighbors.
Bike lanes are only part the overall project for Mount Pleasant Avenue, which is being funded through the R.I. Department of Transportation. The DOT secured federal grants for the project that are earmarked for public safety needs; the street was the site of a hit-and-run crash in 2015 that killed a Mount Pleasant High School teacher, Anne-Marie Dansicker.
Also included in the project are traffic-calming measures like speed lumps, curb extensions (which allow pedestrians to be more visible to cars when waiting to cross) and raised crosswalks.
“I have been advocating for speed bumps and raised crosswalks on the side streets,” Ryan told her constituents. “This two-way bike lane doesn’t belong on Mount Pleasant Avenue.”
She’s also concerned about emergency response, parking, RIPTA and school bus drop-off if one side of the street is taken up by the urban trail. The bike lanes will include a physical barrier blocking vehicles from pulling over in the lanes to drop someone off at the sidewalk.
Ryan previously sent a letter to RIDOT saying she was “fully supportive” of the reconfiguration of the street. But Ryan said the letter, dated May 2019, was written for her before she had a full picture of what two-way bike lanes entailed.
“They’ve been waving that letter in front of me,” Ryan said. “That letter was drafted for me by the planning department to secure the funds.”
She said obtaining the federal public safety funding was important to her, which is why she sent the letter of support when the plan was newly hatched. But the debacle on Eaton Street, coupled with additional information and the opposition of the people who actually live on Mount Pleasant, prompted her to come out against the bike lanes.
“It wasn’t fully explained,” added City Council spokesperson Billy Kepner.
Not everyone at the meeting was against the plan. Donny Green, who lives on Academy Avenue and works as the bicycle program director at the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, said he wants the bike lanes to be installed throughout the city to make it a safer place for kids.
“What the city’s doing right is they’re starting to … see that the road is for everyone,” Green said. “A separated, two-way bike lane actually creates a safe lane of travel.”
One supporter to take the microphone at the meeting was Mal Skowron, who lives on the East Side but said she was there because her roommate works at Mount Pleasant High School.
“Seeing plans like this makes me excited, because it’ll make not just me safer, but the students who go to this school safer,” Skowron said. “A lot of the students in this school don’t drive, they don’t have access to cars.”
The project is also supported by Our Streets Providence, a coalition of community organizations that want “people-friendly” streets in the city.
Nickerson said she plans to take the concerns of the residents back to the administration to make tweaks to the plan.
“We’re not going to go back to zero,” Nickerson said after the meeting. “People have legitimate questions … how does it impact bus travel, those are all really valid points.”
She told the crowd that the city would reduce the number of speed tables and retain some of the parking spaces in response to their critiques.
“Whether or not we holistically rethink this entire plan, that’s something that I’m going to have to grapple with and bring back to the administration,” Nickerson said to the neighbors.
“Delete the plan!” retorted someone from the crowd.