Durham DOT director Mark Ahrendsen gets necked down at the BPAC Club Blvd meeting

Mark Ahrendsen looked a little uncomfortable last night as he answered some tough questions about the W. Club Blvd neck down project.

Not much new was learned. The story as I told it before is roughly accurate. Ahrendsen insists that the BPAC’s concerns about the impact of neck downs on cyclists (which were presented to him in writing in 2010) weren’t “ignored;” instead, they were “considered” and then discarded, since the specific examples mentioned in the letter weren’t feasible to implement. Ahrendsen, of course, didn’t tell that to the BPAC at the time. BPAC chair Erik Landfried appeared frustrated by the fact that Ahrendsen ruled out the specific examples rather than responding to the more crucial general observation that cyclists deserved some attention in the project.

According to Ahrendsen, this whole thing is now on the WHHNA. There’s no facility for any of it to be revisited by his department at this point unless the WHHNA changes its mind. No amount of public input from any other community will be considered. Ahrendsen has presented two options to the WHHNA: neck downs or scrap the thing and start over – and his sole concern is to implement whichever of those options they choose. Ahrendsen threw out “three years” in describing how long it might take to implement a revised project should WHHNA change its mind now.

As I’ve never observed the process of such street designs before, I found this shocking; the concerns of the neighborhood in which a street runs surely must be important, but considering those desires in a vacuum when constructing a plan that impacts motorists and cyclists from other neighborhoods is insane. As far as I’m aware, last night’s BPAC meeting is the first time the general public outside of the WHHNA was invited to discuss this plan with Ahrendsen, and as was made clear it’s now far too late to do anything about it.

Even though it’s been thirteen years since the original study, and it’s been eight years since Club was identified as an important road for cyclists, the assumptions and implementation goals of the original plan have never been revisited. A public works employee (whose name I didn’t catch) described all of the engineering challenges associated with installing neck downs (of which there are apparently many) and offered insights into the requirements he was given (which amounted to, basically, put in neck downs). Federal regulations have changed since the original study, and the implementation details of the neck-downs were modified to support those, but the fundamental design elements have remained unmodified. No study which considers the needs of cyclists has ever been performed. The public works employee was not instructed to consider engineering any design features to aid cyclists, and so he did not.

My take is that Ahrendsen is looking to dump this hot potato on the WHHNA to avoid any direct responsibility himself. I suspect that he understands the design isn’t ideal, but he doesn’t want to be the guy that slows down “their” project any further. The WHHNA is who he’s out to appease, and by placing it in their lap, if there are problems down the road, they are the ones responsible for accepting the plan.

It looks to me, quite frankly, like cowardice. If Ahrendsen is supposed to take the transit needs of the entire community into consideration, he’s clearly failing to do that. In this fight, it seems as if cyclists have no advocate.

Furthermore, I think the WHHNA is well on its way to becoming reviled by some cyclists. It seems as if no discussion of Club can occur without somebody bringing up the death of Seth Vidal. The WHHNA board’s endorsement of an anti-cyclist road design in close proximity to that incident certainly appears callous (or at the very least tone deaf), a point which one commenter mentioned last night.

If you live in WHH, I urge you to contact your board and express your concerns. Neck downs are actively dangerous. Do not let your neighborhood be perceived as so hostile to the needs of cyclists. Demand a better plan that works for everybody.

Somebody at the BPAC meeting last night made a suggestion so simple that I can hardly believe it was discarded in favor of this monstrosity: why not simply add pedestrian crossings with triggered stoplights? My suspicion is that the economics of such things didn’t work out in 2001, because I can’t fathom any way in which neckdowns could be considered preferable to anybody. I’ve seen these dedicated pedestrian lights sprout up in the intervening years and they’re excellent solutions (see, for example, Murray Ave near the Museum of Life+Science).

The budget for the Club neckdowns is $350,000; I wonder how many triggered pedestrian crossings you can buy for $350,000?

Maybe somebody from the WHHNA should ask that question of Mark Ahrendsen.

4 thoughts on “Durham DOT director Mark Ahrendsen gets necked down at the BPAC Club Blvd meeting

  1. I wasn’t at the meeting, and I’m not a cyclist. I do live on W. Club and I was on the WHHNA board when the original design (which, by the way, also included traffic circles) was worked on with the various stakeholders. I certainly knew Seth, through the neighborhood and his work with the WHHNA, and because we had many mutual friends, and his death was a tragic waste. However, I would like to point out that Seth was killed on Hillandale Road, not on W. Club Boulevard. Also, he was struck by an impaired driver who had a documented history of DWI and was at the time driving without a license. No amount of neck downs, traffic circles, pedestrian crossings, or lowered speed limits will ever take away the scourge of impaired drivers who threaten everyone else who is sharing the road with them.

    Personally, I’m tired of hearing squealing brakes and the sound of smashing glass at my corner of W. Club. It’s impossible, it seems, to craft a decision about how to slow traffic that will please everyone equally. But I think the time has come for SOMEONE to make a decision and implement any plan that will help, however imperfectly, change W. Club from Durham’s version of the Indy 500 into something which more closely resembles the residential street it is.

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