Critics abandon bridge lawsuit

Potential cost of suit too high for those opposed to loss of bike lanes on bridge

Posted: Friday, September 12, 2003

Juneau's cycling organization has decided it won't go to court to try to keep the state from removing bike lanes from the Douglas Bridge.

The Juneau Freewheelers Bicycle Club threatened earlier this week to appeal city approval of the state's plan to reconfigure the bridge's lanes and approaches. The Juneau Assembly passed a resolution Monday supporting the plan, which the Freewheelers said they would oppose in Juneau Superior Court.

"We had a little informal straw poll and decided not to do it," Freewheelers spokesman Rob Welton said Thursday. "People were afraid of legal liability. If you lose you can be liable for court costs and legal fees, especially with that new law that kicked in."

House Bill 145, challenged in a lawsuit filed this week, requires public-interest groups to pay such fees and costs if they lose a challenge to a government-agency decision.

Monday's 5-4 Assembly vote was needed for the state Department of Transportation to proceed with the $8 million bridge plan, which will convert two vehicle and two bike lanes into three vehicle lanes, one which would be reversible. Work also will include widening the existing separated sidewalk to handle pedestrians and bicycles and adding a traffic circle near the Douglas side of the bridge.

Freewheelers members and others objected, saying separate bike lanes are needed to safely cross the bridge. While bicycles are expected to be allowed in vehicle lanes after the bridge is reconfigured, their narrowness would prohibit safe cycling, members said.

State officials said the project would reduce traffic congestion on the bridge and at intersections on the Douglas and mainland sides. They said the lane reconfiguration was the best option available and would be safe for drivers and cyclists.

Welton said his 200-member group still may appeal the project to federal highway officials. He said removing bike lanes violates conditions tied to federal grants used for the project.

"We're going to get together and talk it over. We haven't made up our mind yet," he said.

State project planner Chris Morrow said government regulations prohibit a federally funded project from cutting a major cycling route or making it more dangerous. But he said the project will continue to allow bicycles on the road or the pedestrian walkway, which will be widened from 6 to 7 1/2 feet, with a lower inside barrier that allows more elbow room.

"We think we are providing the alternate route by providing the multi-use path," Morrow said. "We think what we're doing is legal and complies with all our policies and procedures."

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