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Red River realignment adds to concerns for campus bike safety

Thursday, September 19, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Since Jan. 28, the night Tony Diaz was killed while cycling through the University of Texas campus, university management has listened to and considered calls for safer bicycle facilities on San Jacinto Boulevard, a popular cycling route both for students and non-students. Still, nearly eight months later, the university remains uncommitted to any such action, even temporarily, preferring to wait on further development of the planned Red River Street realignment and the city’s Project Connect transit vision before moving forward.

On Tuesday night, the Bicycle Advisory Council urged Jim Walker, the university’s director of sustainability, to reconsider that position, predicting that the roughly two-year closure of Red River Street during the realignment process will only make San Jacinto more hazardous for cyclists as northbound and southbound traffic is diverted east and west.

Walker acknowledged the possibility, saying, “It’s going to be a challenge for people trying to get north and south on that side of downtown and on that side of campus.”

The project contractors are hoping to address those mobility issues with an alternative transportation plan that will help the university prepare for those changes. Nonetheless, Walker said, the university is not looking to adopt any street reconfigurations, even temporary ones, that may become permanent and create a problem for other projects.

“We want to look at all the issues before we start reconfiguring the streets,” Walker said.

Kathryn Flowers, chair of the Bicycle Advisory Council, said temporary bicycle facilities don’t have to be permanent any more than the fences and temporary infrastructure installed during long-term construction projects. Bike lanes can be installed and removed as needed, she said; the city does it all the time.

Flowers pointed to the city’s plans for bike lanes on Trinity Street from Sixth to 15th streets, a project with similar constraints. Despite the possibility that the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s high-capacity Blue Line may eventually require use of Trinity Street, Neil Quarles of the Transportation Department said the city is moving forward with the facilities and is prepared to move them to a parallel corridor if necessary in the future.

In addition to the Blue Line, which may run through the university on San Jacinto, Walker said the university is considering future growth potential, how the new Red River Street will impact traffic patterns, and the parking needs for different campus offices, such as the Performing Arts Center.

Noting that, unlike in the 2014 light rail plan, the city is also considering grade-separation for its major routes, Walker said those details should be more clear in January or February, when Capital Metro announces the preferred alignments of the Orange and Blue Line routes.

Parking is a major issue in the debate. Bicycle advocates have criticized San Jacinto in particular for the prevalence of angled parking spaces, which advocates say is less safe for cyclists than parallel on-street parking. Besides safety, Walker said stakeholders value the more than 400 parking spots on San Jacinto, not including the off-street parking garages.

Although the university would like people to use underutilized garages, such as the East Campus Garage, Walker said not everyone is comfortable with or able to walk the roughly 15-minute stretch across Interstate 35 to that part of campus.

Even for those who are able to do so, he said, the university is not going to ask them to change their behavior to accommodate one group of stakeholders – cyclists. Generally, Walker said, people get “pretty defensive” about their parking.

Despite the lack of commitment, Walker said he would take the ideas offered by the council to the design team working on that portion of campus and the Red River project.

If adopted, one of those ideas may offer a solution for northbound and southbound cyclists worried about the coming traffic changes. The idea from BAC Member Tom Wald – while leaving San Jacinto in its current condition – would include the addition of a two-way shared-use path for bicyclists and pedestrians to the east of San Jacinto between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Manor Road.

Photo by atmtx made available through a Creative Commons license.

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