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Why it could take 5 years to build a permanent bike lane on Clifton Avenue

Declan Tom, 22, was among dozens of bicyclists who attended a Special Neighborhoods Committee meeting Thursday night in support of making the Clifton bike lane permanent.
Jolene Almendarez
Declan Tom, 22, was among dozens of bicyclists who attended a special Neighborhoods Committee meeting Sept. 30 in support of making the Clifton bike lane permanent.

Dozens showed support for making a mile-long bike lane on Clifton Avenue permanent during a recent city meeting. The pilot project was launched in March, and discussions about making the lane permanent are underway. But even if approved, the project could take up to five years to complete. Why the long wait?

It's twofold: the political will and capability to fund bike lanes; and the highly competitive grant application process for funding.

"I would say that in recent years, on-road bike infrastructure has not been a high priority for the city of Cincinnati," said Wade Johnston, director of Tri-State Trails.

He said there are a lot of competing needs from the city's capital and operating budgets, and officials are stuck stretching their dollars as far as possible.

Johnston says political will is also a factor when it comes to funding because creating new bike lanes almost always involves tradeoffs, like reducing lanes of traffic or getting rid of street parking.

That's not to say city officials won't support bike lanes. Johnston says officials have supported the building of the roughly six-mile Wasson Way trail and have supported other projects that are a part of the ambitious 34-mile CROWN Loop, an urban trail project.

But that doesn't necessarily translate to dollars spent on bike lane projects. So, funding for projects like the Clifton Avenue bike lane comes almost exclusively from state and federal grants, which are programmed out three to five years in advance.

"Each community is only allowed to apply for two projects a year for the large grants at OKI (Regional Board of Governments) and you have to choose your highest priority project, based on the need, in order to be considered for funding," Johnston said.

Bridges over bikes

The competition is stiff as local infrastructure, including bridges, deteriorates faster than repairs can be made.

"The Western Hills viaduct is not a federal highway, and Hamilton County and the city of Cincinnati had to find money for that locally. And that's one of many bridges around town," he said. "When you put it into perspective for bike infrastructure, it's often a heavy lift for us to even get on the radar of local government to compete with a bridge that's falling apart, you know?"

Other hurdles include scoring on grant applications that favor road projects, and the ability of municipalities to match at least 25% of grant funding, he said.

But Johnston and other bike lane supporters point out bike lanes are a safety issue.

On Tuesday, Johnston was keeping track of a pedestrian's condition after a vehicle struck the person. They were in critical condition and needed emergency surgery.

Last year, 7,569 people were killed or injured in traffic collisions in the Greater Cincinnati area and Northern Kentucky. That excludes data from highway crashes. At least 18 pedestrians diedin crashes in Cincinnati.

"It's also a big equity issue that, for people who don't have access to a car," he said. "Really, it's about making it a level playing field so that walking or biking or taking the bus is as accessible as it is to drive."

Johnston says the Clifton Avenue bike lane got picked as a project because it's by the University of Cincinnati and is the second largest employment hub. But lower-income neighborhoods don't get the same kind of consideration.

"Think about for lower-income neighborhoods that could really benefit from having a safe place to bike because a large portion of that population doesn't have access to a car," he said. "It's even harder, in many cases, to get bike infrastructure in those communities. It's harder to get hardly any investment in those communities, much less a bike lane."

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.