Bellingham rejects reducing lanes on much of Alabama Street

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 6, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - Some residents and business owners along Alabama Street have been saying the city can't reduce the key commuter route from four lanes to two without snarling traffic.

In so many words, city officials at an open house Wednesday, March 5, said those people were right.

Seeking the best way to spend a $1.4 million federal grant for safety improvements on Alabama, city officials on Wednesday proposed converting only the seven blocks from Cornwall Avenue to James Street to two lanes plus a center turn lane. Bicycle lanes would be added on five blocks, from Dean Avenue to Iron Street.

The city rejected a plan to run the three-lane configuration across the entire 1.75-mile project area, from Cornwall to St. Clair Street. Traffic studies showed the backups at intersections during evening rush hour would be intolerably long.

"It was pretty overwhelming really," city transportation planner Chris Comeau told the 50 or so residents at the open house held at Roosevelt Elementary School.

Backups from the limited lane reduction that was finally proposed were "not much worse than the existing conditions," Comeau said.

The lane configuration now in place up Alabama Hill - two eastbound and one westbound - would be extended three blocks west, from St. Clair to Superior Street.

The city also proposed three crosswalks on Alabama with pedestrian-activated red lights. They would be the first crosswalks of their kind in Bellingham, Comeau said.

Any change to the speed limit, now 35 mph, is "to be determined," Comeau said. "These components should have a speed-reduction effect."

Timothy Trott, owner of Lee's Drive-In at Alabama and James, had been an outspoken critic of the city's plan for Alabama. That changed once he saw the proposal at the open house.

"If that meets the city's overall goal for safety, and reduces accidents, and they can still keep the speed limit at 35, and if the commuter flow does well, I thought it was a great way," Trott said in a phone interview Thursday, March 6.

The plan is still just a proposal. It won't be finalized until the city takes public comments, Comeau said. People can email their comments to ccomeau@cob.org.

Reviews at the open house were mixed.

"My biggest concern is what's driving this, bikes and pedestrians," said Kathy Walker, who lives on Alabama Hill. "This is a major thoroughfare. This may not be the place for bikes."

The bicycle lanes also caught the attention of Rick Bruland, who lives off of Alabama on Xenia Street.

"Having bicycles on Alabama Street is nuts," he said.

A resident of the neighborhood since 1972, Bruland recognized something needed to be done to improve safety.

"I'm glad they're doing something on Alabama," he said. "I think what they should do, too, is reduce the speed limit."

Some people at the open house supported reducing the lanes from four to three.

"I like the idea of three for a selfish reason," said Stan Hanson, who lives on Michigan Street. "I ride my bicycle to work."

ALABAMA STREET MAP

ON THE WEB

Maps showing the proposed street improvements, and slides from the March 5 open house presentation, can be found at cob.org. Enter "Alabama" in the search box.

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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