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Wauwatosa bike/ped hearing attracts a full house

May 6, 2013

Cyclists and walkers gathered for a standing-room-only meeting at Fire Station No. 1 last week for a community meeting hosted by the city's Bike & Pedestrian Facilities Plan Steering Committee.

The deplorable state of local parkways, and problems with people riding bikes on sidewalks were perhaps the most popular topics, but there was no shortage of issues.

The attendance - more than 60 people - was taken as a testimony to the enthusiasm surrounding the project.

"It is amazing to see this great crowd here," said Kevin Hardman, executive director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin, which is helping guide the discussion.

"We're also doing a plan in Stevens Point, and the turnout was maybe 15 people," said Tom Huber, regional director of Toole Design Group, the city's consultant.

Almost 400 comments have been entered on the steering committee's interactive mapping tool, at TinyURL.com/TosaBikePedMap. Comments about the condition of the Menomonee River Parkway were among the most common issues raised, Huber said.

Menomonee Parkway

North of North Avenue, the parkway's pavement is cracked and deteriorated, and though there's a small dirt walking path along the west, or river, side of the route, it is not sufficient for biking.

"Seriously, the safest place for my kids to bike is smack down the middle of the Menomonee River Parkway, because both edges" are crumbling, one woman said. "Paint some lines right down the middle!"

Another factor at play is the increasing use of the road as a commuter route, increasing traffic and putting more pressure on cyclists - an argument in favor of a dedicated trail.

Huber said a preference was apparent for a separate, formal bike path on the west side of the parkway.

But that is not likely. A painted bike lane is what the county is looking at, said Jim Keegan, interim director of the Milwaukee County Parks Department, who attended the meeting. The county owns the parkway.

"We have $100,000 in this year's budget allocated to do some beginning conceptual design on rehabilitating the whole parkway," Keegan said.

He said he would seek $3 million in each of the next two years to repave the road.

He noted that the Oak Leaf Trail is the parkway itself at that point, and that when the road is improved, bikes lanes will be marked. He said he doubts a separate bike trail that follows the course of the river will be approved, as the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District has control of the area and to put a non-permeable surface in the basin would reduce water retention.

The complexity involved in dealing multiple jurisdictions was a theme that arose several times.

Underwood Parkway

Keegan also addressed Underwood Parkway, from Swan Boulevard to Watertown Plank Road - another popular, if rough, route for bikers.

The state Department of Transportation plans to rebuild Swan. That, and construction at the other end, on Watertown Plank Road, will make the parkway a holding zone for materials and heavy equipment. Any improvement to the road before that would be eaten up by the heavy use, he said.

But the DOT will be responsible for repaving it on their way out, he noted.

Work on Swan is scheduled to begin this year, but, Keegan said, the repaving might be three years away. In the meantime, county staff is looking at a "Band-Aid" to provide passable pavement, he said.

The western length of Underwood Creek Parkway, from 115th Street west, was "not ranked that bad," he said.

Sidewalks and safe routes

Some bikers present said they prefer the sidewalk to the streets for safety, especially for children who ride. Wauwatosa police officer Don Semega said it is illegal - by state statute - to ride a bike on the sidewalk, but in his years on the force, he has never written a ticket for the infraction.

Views of sidewalk riding, legal or not, were mixed. Crossing streets from sidewalk to sidewalk on a bike can be more hazardous, for example.

"Typically, it's much less safe to ride on the sidewalk," Hardman said.

Linking the biking system with the schools on West Center Street - Tosa West, Whitman and Eisenhower - was another concern some had. A Safe Routes to Street Grant from the state has been used to hire Toole Design Group to work on that problem, as well - a subset, in a way, of the larger bike and pedestrian plan.

Kevin Luecke, a transportation planner with Toole, said input from residents is important and helps to prioritize options. But what is ideal and what is possible sometimes won't match up.

"One of the things we do in this plan is look for low-hanging fruit," he said.

There are a number of steps ahead before any plan is complete. By July, the committee will be "framing the network," Huber said, and identifying gaps and problem areas.

Another public meeting with firmer plans to discuss is likely in August or September, he said.

"We'd like to think we're going to make these recommendations, and automatically within two or three years … they're going to happen, and that's not the case," Huber said. "It's a long-range plan. There are investments that have to be made. There is engineering work that has to happen. There are partnerships that have to be entered into," he said.

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