Reworking lanes on the Douglas Bridge could begin as soon as next year, following city approval Monday night of state plans to reconfigure the roadway.
After hearing objections from bicyclists and commuters as well as explanations from a state official, the Juneau Assembly voted 5-4 to approve the state Department of Transportation plan, which would add a third, reversible lane for vehicles and eliminate existing bike lanes.
After the vote, opponents met and decided to hold a protest bicycle ride across the bridge at 4:30 p.m. today.
The project, expected to cost about $8 million, has been before the Juneau Planning Commission and Assembly committees several times, with votes for and against a formal resolution supporting the proposal. DOT project planner Chris Morrow said Monday's Assembly vote gives the state the direction it needs to move ahead with reconfigured lanes and changes in access on both sides of the bridge.
The plan before the Assembly on Monday will add a traffic circle, or roundabout, on the Douglas side of the bridge, which DOT has said would speed the flow of traffic approaching the bridge from West Juneau and North Douglas.
But the most controversial element of the project was elimination of the bridge's two bike lanes and reconfiguration of the two-vehicle-lane bridge into a three-vehicle-lane bridge. The center lane's direction would change with the flow of traffic, running toward the mainland in the morning and toward the island the rest of the day. And most bicyclists would be expected to share a widened pedestrian sidewalk.
The Assembly only heard from opponents at the meeting, many of whom said the reconfigured lanes would be too narrow to be safe for drivers, especially in slippery, windy winter months when school buses and other larger vehicles are present.
"It just increases the risk that's already there if there are three lanes," said Lynn Shepherd, a Douglas Highway commuter. "People will drive slower due to the risk. ... You're defeating the purpose of having three lanes if your speed is reduced."
Others said the lane change would endanger cyclists and discourage exercise.
"That bridge with three lanes on it is just off-limits to a safe cyclist," said Eric Olsen, who spoke as a cyclist and physician. "We have an epidemic here of diabetes and obesity. We need to be more active as a society."
Several critics said the plan would be an expensive solution to a problem that doesn't yet exist. Money instead should be directed to a possible second crossing of Gastineau Channel, they said.
"This plan is kind of like putting a Band-Aid on a wound that needs surgery," said frequent bridge driver Jim Ruotsala.
Morrow of DOT said the plan would address a real need relatively safely. The lanes are wide enough, and many bicyclists will use the sidewalk, not the road, he said.
Morrow also stressed that intersections on both sides of the bridge are extremely unsafe and need improvements.
"I believe the solution we're offering up is a reasonably safe project," Morrow said.
Before the vote, Assembly member Marc Wheeler said he opposed the plan as overkill.
"I don't see that we have that big of a problem," he said.
Member Stan Ridgeway said the city needs to encourage exercise for the health of the community.
"It's a very important issue to be able to exercise and train freely and not be afraid of cars and people who wont exercise the right of way," he said.
Assembly member Jeannie Johnson, however, said Juneau provides plenty of fitness options and would continue to do so under the DOT plan. Johnson and member Randy Wanamaker also said the plan addresses traffic and safety needs now and doesn't just wait for a second crossing to be built.
"I believe this is going to provide for the future growth of our community," Johnson said.
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