By Peter Gunther
For all the wrong reasons, the Fifth Street revision has joined the conversation surrounding Measure O (the city sales tax proposal), fueled by claims that the project is a mammoth boondoggle that proves the city just blindly throws our tax money about and shouldn’t have any more to misuse.
Endless letters to the editor heap ridicule on the project: The City Council members are too stupid to realize two lanes of traffic are less than four. The drunken wastrels on the council are throwing city money down a rat hole just for fun. They don’t need more money to spend, they just need to spend what we already give them on something useful.
It has been claimed that inevitable overruns will push the “$5 million vanity project” to $7 million. They’re wasting our taxes just to make Fifth Street better for bikers. They’re “choking off Fifth Street,” killing the downtown business district and driving the city to financial ruin. If they think removing two lanes will speed up traffic, unicorns are sure to follow. The attacks are angry and relentless.
But none of these letters ever mentions the safety reasons Fifth Street is being fixed. And, for the record, the projected cost is under $2 million, not $5 million, with grant funds covering more than half of that cost, leaving the city’s share below $1 million.
Traffic experts repeatedly have stated that Fifth Street will do fine with one lane in each direction and a turn lane in the middle, plus bike lanes — just like much of F Street is now. They say it will handle as much traffic as before, at the same speed — only safer and more efficiently. Computer modeling backs up those claims, as do many similar real-world projects already in use.
Unfortunately, the mindless shorthand term for the project — road diet — has needlessly muddied the debate and fueled misinformed criticism from the outset.
Tellingly, there has been no credible evidence to support such criticism in spite of the, at times, loud and insistent push-back by a number of opponents. To be sure, the initial computer study predicted grave problems, just as the city’s Public Works Department warned. But, oddly, the software had been fiddled to get that result. Once the city consultant had been forced by the creators of the software to play it straight, those problems evaporated.
And the reason for all of this is crystal-clear. Fifth Street is the most dangerous, accident-prone street in the city. Crossing Fifth anywhere between A and L streets — by car, bike or on foot — is often a journey for the brave and foolish. The four lanes of traffic, coming from opposite directions, are regularly a beast of four widely varying speeds and driver attention, while crosswalks monitored by traffic lights are too few and far apart.
Worse still, Fifth Street is in constant use by bicyclists who risk their very lives on a street not designed for bikes. Some local business owners, while acknowledging the city can’t legally bar bikes from Fifth, have professed total indifference to the inherent danger.
But the city cannot afford such a cynical and blindingly stupid attitude especially in a community that pioneered bike lanes in the United States, houses the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, routinely trumpets its commitment to bicycling as recreation and transportation, and uses cycling as the very symbol of the city.
Every major arterial in Davis has bike lanes or separate bike paths except Fifth Street. Meanwhile bicyclists are fed to this stretch of road by bike paths, safely removed from car traffic, at each end of the project — on Fifth east of L Street, and to the west for the entire length of the UC Davis campus along Russell Boulevard.
Try telling a jury that negligent road design wasn’t at fault for a plaintiff’s injuries (or worse) while biking along Fifth when separate bike paths were deemed necessary for contiguous portions of the same street at both ends.
In fact, the city is starting to address the danger in some streets that have long had bike lanes and has gone to great lengths in the past year to upgrade bike safety on First Street, B Street and J Street near Holmes Junior High.
So, please, judge the Fifth Street project, as it reflects on your Measure O vote, any way you want, but at least do so in light of the real issues at stake, not the hyperbolic and fanciful claims that frequently appear in letters to the editor.
— Peter Gunther is a longtime Davis resident.