The City Council has passed a bill that would temporarily close at least 25 miles of roads to cars, opening them to city residents for exercise and social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Rules were suspended last night to advance the “Temporary Street Space for Pedestrians and Cyclists” legislation to second reader and final passage on the same day.
If the bill receives Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young’s signature – which is no sure bet – the Department of Transportation will have two weeks to select the streets and implement the program.
“If we do not say that they [the Department of Transportation] have to do something, they will do nothing,” said Council President Brandon M. Scott.
In a letter to the Council, DOT Director Steve Sharkey opposed the bill, saying that while he agreed with its “spirit,” it required too much coordination and staff time to implement at short notice.
Here’s how Sharkey put it:
“DOT would be required to identify and plan routes, procure additional materials, assign sufficient levels of staff, conduct robust public outreach and then implement a minimum of 25 centerline miles (roughly 500 city blocks) of lane closures or safe streets within 14 days.
“The bill’s intent is to promote the health and well-being of the general public, though DOT must also be mindful of frontline workers who would be tasked with implementing safe streets and lane closures. . .
“Furthermore, a significant amount of the agency’s Administrative, Planning, Community Outreach, Traffic Division, Safety Division and Maintenance Division staff would be required to implement the bill’s mandates. These additional costs and resources would be coming ahead of looming austerity measures.”
Councilman Eric Costello ultimately voted for the bill, but not without first raising objections along the lines of DOT’s.
“There’s simply no way I can support moving something of this magnitude to third reader,” Costello said. “I certainly appreciate the President’s intention here; that being said, this is a pretty sweeping piece of legislation. . . that was introduced just a week ago.”
Councilman Zeke Cohen, whose district saw a contentious fight over bike lanes in Canton three years ago, said he rarely hears complaints about lane closures anymore.
“Honestly, the people who were most frustrated, they seem okay these days,” Cohen said. “If it requires a hard push on DOT from this Council, I’m all for that.”
The Young administration has recently undertaken limited roadway closures within Druid Hill Park and around Lake Montebello, placing traffic cones in select locations to restrict car movements and parking.
Ryan Dorsey, chair of the Council’s Transportation Committee, said it took the city half an hour to close the road around Lake Montebello to cars; what took time was creating the political will.
“I completely reject the idea that this is impossible,” Dorsey said. “They absolutely have the capacity to do this.”
If implemented, the program will scarcely place Baltimore at the forefront of the road-closing movement.
As The Brew noted last week, a growing number of cities and counties have opened up streets to bikers, walkers and others as part of effort to encourage physical exercise and to improve mental health amid the pandemic.
Read the bill and DOT’s response here.