Residents review Milwaukee Avenue proposals


Opponents of a city proposal that may include reducing traffic lanes to improve safety on sections of Milwaukee Avenue appeared to outnumber supporters at a packed open house that was held on July 2 at the Copernicus Center Annex, 5214 W. Lawrence Ave.

More than 200 people attended the event, which featured engineers from the city Department of Transportation who presented three options for the "Complete Streets" safety improvement plan. The department was seeking community reaction to the plans, and officials answered questions, which at times led to heated exchanges between residents and Alderman John Arena (45th), who supports the project.

The proposed project would affect Milwaukee between Lawrence Avenue and Elston Avenue, but fewer changes are expected between Lawrence and the Kennedy Expressway, where traffic is more congested due to the relatively narrow roadway.

One option calls for all existing lanes of traffic to remain north of the expressway and the existing bike lanes on Milwaukee to be made wider. The current bike lanes measure 5 1/2 feet wide and are located to the left of the parking lane, which the department refers to as outside the parking lane.

Under a second option a lane of traffic would be eliminated in each direction but the bike lanes would be positioned to the outside of parked cars.

The third option option would eliminate 20 percent of street parking and one lane of traffic in each direction, and barriers, such as concrete waiting areas for bus riders, would be used to protect bike lanes that would be located along the curb.

All three options include high-visibility crosswalks, pedestrian refuge islands and curb extensions, which shorten the distance of crosswalks. In addition, traffic signal improvements would be made in an effort to improve the flow of traffic, including places where lanes of traffic would be removed.

"There’s a lot of people that are coming up to me that don’t want to grandstand and just want to say ‘thank you,’" Arena said at the meeting. "I’ve actually had more than I thought that came up to me and said ‘I like option C,’ which is not what I thought I would hear, but I do have a lot of people saying that."

Arena has not endorsed any of the options.

Arena said that one purpose of the project is to reduce speeding. He said that many motorists drive 45 miles per hour on Milwaukee and that more than 900 accidents have occurred in the area since 2008.

"If we can calm speed, then we can get more people involved in the roadway," Arena said. "Pedestrians are shoppers, and if any business is not thinking about how to make their shoppers comfortable walking into their business, then I don’t think they are doing themselves a service."

At the meeting the Gladstone Park Chamber of Commerce gave CDOT officials a petition containing about 4,000 signatures that opposes the Milwaukee Avenue "road diet."

The petition states, "While we fully support the improvement of Milwaukee Ave. from Lawrence Ave. to Elston Ave., we do not support the idea of a ‘road diet’ that would reduce Milwaukee Ave. to one lane of traffic in either direction to make room for a protected bike lane and eliminate parking along the curb."

Chamber board member John Garrido said that there are other ways to slow traffic without reducing Milwaukee to two lanes. Garrido and chamber president David Wians made the presentation during the meeting.

"These petition were signed by 90 percent of the local residents, business owners and stakeholders in the area," Wians said. "These contain signatures and addresses and are legitimate. Five to ten percent are not from the area."

"This is not like the business community is trying to freak everybody out and that their businesses will be hurt," Wians said. "I want to thank the people of this community who are smart enough to figure this out themselves, and that’s why we’ve had such an outpouring of petitions."

Arena said that he does not see the logic in the chamber’s "grandstanding."

"I don’t know what their agenda is," Arena said. "It doesn’t seem like a good business decision for a chamber of commerce to walk into something like this and especially stand next to a political candidate and turn it into a show because he wants to have credibility."

Arena was referring to Garrido, who is running for alderman in the 45th Ward. Garrido lost to Arena by 30 votes in the last election.

Arena said that the purpose of the meeting was to get reaction from the community to make an educated decision regarding the proposed options. He said that the transportation department has done research on the street and that the goal of the project is not to create congestion but to improve safety. Arena said that department officials will examine the petition to see if "there is any validity to it."

"We don’t have a choice yet, and we need to see what the community wants," project consultant John Wirtz said. "I think most people don’t like the idea of removing travel lanes from the road, but we’ll need to look at the comments and see what people say."

"Safety is the goal of the project and speeding is a big part of reducing safety," Wirtz said. "Right now 75 percent of the cars on the road are speeding."

"People are under the impression that this is creating bike lanes and leaving less room for cars, but the majority of people who will benefit from this are pedestrians," Jim Merrell of the Active Transportation Alliance said after the meeting. "I think that the people who attended the meeting were under the impression that there was a definite plan in place and that lanes are being reduced."

"At the end of the day, the purpose of the project is to increase the safety on that roadway by reducing speed," Merrell said. "I think because the road is so wide in certain parts, people tend to speed. I found it interesting to learn that so many accidents, more than 900 occurred within the past few years."

Merrell said that the alliance, which works to make bicycling, walking and public transit safe, supports the "Complete Streets" project and that the transportation department has found that the project would not cause congestion and people would not lose time because of synchronized traffic lights.

Those who attended the meeting were not allowed to make public comments, but many were willing to speak to reporters. Some residents and business owners spoke against the proposals and questioned the format of the meeting.

"There’s no one here to walk me through it," one resident said. "They just have these stills addressing only minor issues of it. They don’t realize that it’s just not going to be about bike safety; who is going to be against bike safety?

"Bicyclists ride seven months out of the year. This is going to affect traffic and congestion of the neighborhood 365 days out of the year."

"I thought this was going to be a town hall meeting, but it’s not," another resident said. "It’s a quick sales job to try to market something that they’ve already approved without consent of the residents of the neighborhood.

"If they wanted to do this in a democratic manner, they would have put a referendum on a ballot and let us decide whether we want it. It’s going to stifle the businesses on Milwaukee Avenue."

"The important thing to note here is that there is no plan yet and that there are three options on the table,"

A resident said that reducing Milwaukee to one lane in each direction would create bottlenecks that would cause cars to speed down side streets to make up for lost time.

"You’re going to have all this traffic that will back up," the resident said. "You’re going to have problems in the winter. Who is going to plow the bike lanes? Who will plow the streets?"

"I’ve talked to many people here and not one person had a good thing to say about narrowing the streets," a business owner said. "I have nothing against bike lanes, so this is not about that. Why don’t they just leave everything alone, repave it, remark it, visible marks where you can cross and where you can park."

Near the end of the event after most of those who attended the meeting had left, a group of about 15 residents spoke with Arena about the proposal.

"You’re saying we’re wrong and you’re right," one resident shouted. Another said that the alderman is not listening to the voice of the community. Arena replied that it takes more than 15 people to make up a community.

"The representative body at (a previoius meeting held at Saint Tarcissus School) wasn’t good enough for you either, so tonight you decided, let’s not have a discussion, let’s not have the public have their view when I’ve got a full room shoulder to shoulder," a resident said. "I’m not going to ask them what they think, I’m going to wait until three quarters of them leave."

"I’m saying you just smugly counted how many people are standing here, but you did not give any of the people standing here when it was shoulder to shoulder the opportunity to raise their hands and say anything in public with everybody here," the resident said.

Arena said that the meeting provided the opportunity for residents to voice their opinions by filling out a form that was available at the meeting.

The final meeting on the proposal will be held later this summer.