As Bellingham elected officials and traffic engineers are deciding where to prioritize transportation projects such as roads, bike lanes and sidewalks over the next several years, some residents are seeking a speedier remedy.
They’re trying to goose the bureaucracy into taking quick action to slow the commuters who breeze along Eldridge Avenue, ignoring the neighborhood’s 25 mph speed limit on their way back and forth from downtown.
What the Columbia neighbors want is a couple of lighted crosswalks and some blinking speed-limit signs — features that traffic engineers know will cause drivers to lay off the gas pedal.
“It would seem like it would be super-easy. We feel like it’s a small ask,” neighborhood resident J.R. Johnson told The Bellingham Herald.
Their request has been on the city’s Transportation Improvement Program for a decade and has finally been budgeted for 2023, said Eric Johnston, director of the Public Works Department.
In addition to lighted crosswalks, the city will add “protected bike lanes, which will have the effect of lowering speeds” on Eldridge Avenue, which is a wide arterial street that carries 5,500 to 7,000 cars daily, Johnston told The Herald.
That’s much less traffic than other arterial streets such as Lakeway Drive, Northwest Avenue or Old Fairhaven Parkway, according to a 2018 citywide traffic map.
Many drivers speed
Average speed on Eldridge is 30 to 32 mph, and 85% of drivers go 35 mph or slower, Johnston said. But that also means that 15% of drivers go faster.
“The speeds that we see on Eldridge are the speeds that we see in other parts of the city,” Johnston said. “It’s a very consistent pattern that people drive over the posted speed limit.”
Crash data from the Bellingham Police Department and from the Washington State Department of Transportation show that there were fewer serious injury crashes from 2016-2020 on Eldridge Avenue than in other parts of the city.
But some crashes over the past year, especially a horrific wreck where a woman doing yard work lost both legs, made Columbia neighbors decide that things need to change sooner rather than later.
“The next time, it’s going to be a 6-year-old kid. That’s what we’re trying to prevent,” Johnson said.
To get the city’s attention earlier this year, about 50 Columbia residents spent a few hours building a pair of DIY crosswalks, using colored chalk and some traffic cones, materials that cost about $200, Johnson told The Herald.
It wasn’t sanctioned by the Columbia Neighborhood Association, but it was featured on the group’s Facebook page.
One DIY crosswalk location was on Eldridge Avenue at Victor Street, where small children play at Carl Lobe Park.
“We just needed to do something here at the ground level,” Johnson said.
But the Public Works Department promptly removed their act of “tactical urbanism,” citing safety concerns.
“They were not authorized by the city and the city removed them. We were obligated to remove them,” Johnston said.
“That does not mean that we are not understanding of their concerns,” he said.
Undaunted, the neighbors took to their guerrilla tactics again, on Mother’s Day weekend, but that improvised crosswalk was scrubbed clean first thing Monday, May 9.
“We put up this installation and they mobilized three trucks in 24 hours. We don’t want that kind of relationship with the city. That’s why we’ve been at this for a decade,” Johnson said.
They intend to keep at it, even as city officials vow to remove the rogue crosswalks.
“Sure, it’s a brand of hooliganism, but it’s carried out by smart, capable people,” Johnson said.
But Johnston, the public works director, said that city codes prevent such rogue traffic-control efforts.
“It is ill-advised. It’s not authorized for ‘traffic-calming’ devices to be installed without a permit,” Johnston said.
“It’s not cheap” to remove the chalk markings from pavement, Johnston said, although he didn’t have an exact figure.
Further, the neighbors risk a citation if they continue their guerrilla efforts, “but we’re not pursuing that at this point,” Johnston said.
New TIP on tap
Several Columbia neighbors spoke at a May 23 City Council hearing on the city’s newest Transportation Improvement Plan, which is updated every six years, and a full discussion is slated for the council’s next meeting on June 6.
Meanwhile, Columbia residents said that they risk daily injury from speeding drivers.
Sachin Pai told The Herald that he fears for the safety of children, ages 9, 4 and 2.
“Every day, we cross Eldridge to go to school, to see their friends,” Pai said.
When the first rogue crosswalk went up in April, “we saw almost immediate change,” he said. “A wide, straight street encourages fast driving. We’re trying to make that street safe.”
‘Partner’ with the city?
Pai said that the city was able to skirt its normal bureaucratic processes to get streets closed and allow restaurants to expand outdoor dining during the early days of the new coronavirus pandemic, and it should be able to react as quickly to neighborhood concerns, no matter where they arise.
“We really want to partner with the city. We really want to work together,” Pai told The Herald.
At Public Works, Johnston said that he understands their concerns, but that street and road projects must follow a prescribed process.
“We share the concerns that the neighbors in Eldridge share. Those concerns are common to our community,” Johnston said.
But it’s not enough, Johnson said.
“The fact that nothing’s getting done, that’s what’s grinding everybody’s gears,” he said.