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Council favors more bike/ped spending

It’s not often you see one dollar instantly turn into four.

But trails advocate John Grinter witnessed it with glee at last week’s City Council budget workshop, when the council voted to nearly quadruple funding for trails, bike lanes and sidewalks.

The move gave Grinter hope he may nail the target he’s had his sights on since his son was born.

“My goal is that when my 18-month old is seven, he can ride his bike on this island and I can feel that he’s safe,” he said.

The proposed $800,000 earmarked for non-motorized transportation projects in 2005 would promote a goal shared by many islanders. Foot-powered transportation improvements top the list of where residents would like to see capital funding spent, according to city polling.

“The community has emphasized this as their number one priority,” said Councilwoman and Capital Facilities Chair Debbie Vancil. “They’re demanding safe bike lanes, sidewalks and trails.

“We’re showing that we hear those concerns.”

Dana Berg, president of the Squeaky Wheels bicycle advocacy group, said it’s about time.

“Now the city’s finally following through,” Berg said. “It’s fabulous.”

The council passed a motion to boost the preliminary budget’s $200,000 allotment for non-motorized transportation projects to nearly $800,000. The council also voted to increase funding for the annual roads program from $400,000 to $800,000.

Both increases are conditioned on the city’s ability to balance the budget, projected to be more than $35 million.

Grinter, who has organized island trail building workshops, was happy to see the increase because the preliminary budget’s $200,000 wouldn’t go far.

“It’s chump change,” Grinter said.

Vancil and other members of the Capital Facilities Committee made the higher funding recommendation for non-motorized transportation, but admit the amount won’t meet increasing demands.

“We can’t do much with $800,000,” she said. “I wish we had a million a year, because we have a $20 million, 20-year plan to improve these things.”

Non-motorized advocates have a long and expensive list of improvements they’d like to see on the island.

Members of Squeaky Wheels have identified five major roads where they’d like to see the money spent, including SR 305, Eagle Harbor Drive and Olympic Drive. Their $3 million worth of proposed improvements aren’t limited to shoulder widening and more bike lanes; they’d also like to see reduced speeds, increased education and more enforcement of laws that protect bike riders.

Most residents seem to share that vision of an increasingly foot-powered community.

According to the city’s 2000 Community Values Survey, 88 percent of island residents supported the development of bike lanes, while 79 percent expressed support for more trails and sidewalks. Almost 60 percent said they opposed the expansion of island roadways.

“People want this because it touches so many parts of this island,” Grinter said. “The money would help with trails, tourism, biking opportunities, commuting, parking, the environment, our health. It’s a win-win-win-win situation.”

Vancil said it is rare for the council to commit to funding an improvement project at the onset of the budget process.

“For the council to commit to this so early on is huge,” she said. “We came right out, before deciding what to take away, and started with the number one given: non-motorized transportation.”

But the early move to boost pedestrian and bike infrastructure funding wasn’t unanimous. Councilwoman Christine Rolfes urged caution and abstained from voting on the motion.

“I didn’t want to vote against non-motorized transportation, so I abstained,” she said. “I support non-motorized transportation and the possibilities to improve it are endless.”

But Rolfes said she feared the council was rushing into a commitment too early in the budget process.

“I wasn’t willing to cut hundreds of thousands from other parts of the budget until we had a clearer picture,” she said.

The council has already resolved to hold the line on new staff hirings and will seek out other cost-cutting measures in the coming weeks.

Vancil has already expressed support for cuts in city public relations, training, technical support and the Winslow Tomorrow project.

Whether or not the city can find a way scare up the $800,000, Grinter said the move shows a growing commitment to easing the worry he’ll feel as his son kicks off the training wheels and pedals onto the island’s roads.

“It’s a great start toward implementing a whole new view of our island,” he said.

The council will host a public hearing on the 2005 budget tonight at City Hall at 6 p.m.

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