Sylvester Turner said in February that the City of Houston was moving forward with its plan to reconfigure traffic on 11th Street, which he said would make the Heights thoroughfare “safer for all.”
The Houston mayor took a step back from that statement on Tuesday, saying during a Houston City Council meeting that he wanted to take a month to review the plan for the 11th Street Bikeway, which is more than three years in the making. Among other traffic modifications, it calls for a reduction in vehicular lanes along with the addition of protected bicycle lanes on a 1.5-mile stretch of 11th between North Shepherd Drive and Michaux Street.
“He said he wanted to spend at least the next 30 days to convene his departments, review everything and listen to stakeholders and decide the best way to move forward,” said Mary Benton, a spokesperson for Turner.
Turner’s announcement followed the testimony of four Heights-area residents who are opposed to the plan for 11th Street, where the current configuration is two vehicular lanes in each direction. The city has proposed a road diet, which would reduce the number of vehicular lanes to one in each direction, with a center, left-turn lane on most of the stretch between Heights Boulevard and Studewood Street to the east, along with protected bike lanes on the both sides of 11th throughout the project area.
Also part of the plan are related multimodal features along Michaux from 11th to the north and Stude Park to the south, with pedestrian-and-cyclist crossing islands at the intersections of Michaux and White Oak Drive as well as 11th and Nicholson Street. The Heights Hike-and-Bike Trail crosses 11th at Nicholson and was identified by the city as one of the most dangerous intersections in Houston for cyclists.
The project is being funded by the Houston Bike Plan, which was approved by the city council in 2015. Benton said the city council has not and will not vote on the 11th Street Bikeway, adding that whether or not to implement the plan is a decision that rests with Turner.
“We do feel that the mayor is being very fair. He’s looking into this,” said Heights resident Sylvia Blair, who spoke at Tuesday’s city council meeting and opposes the bikeway plan. “He said, ‘I had no idea that people were against this.’”
Blair said she is a member of the Alliance for Reasonable Traffic Solutions (ARTS), a Heights-area organization that has garnered more than 1,400 signatures on an online petition asking city leaders to rethink their plans for road diets and specifically the 11th Street project. Blair said she is not opposed to the idea of adding bike lanes in the neighborhood, but that she thinks 11th Street is too dangerous for cyclists and that reducing the number of vehicle lanes will increase traffic congestion on 11th as well as on side streets.
Project leaders with the city have said the goal of the plan is to slow down cars and trucks and reduce risky traffic movements, such as lane changes and drivers who stop in the left-hand lane while waiting to make left turns, thereby making the street safer for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. They also have said that traffic models show there will not be a significant increase in congestion during most hours of the day.
Heights resident Patrick O’Mahen, who lives near the Nicholson-and-11th crossing and has two young children, said he and his family support the bikeway plan because it’s a “comprehensive approach” and figures to force 11th Street users to make different decisions about how to get around.
“It reduces speeding and makes it safer for everyone,” O’Mahen said. “It makes it easier to cross the street, and it makes it safer for bicycles.”
Beginning in March 2019, the city has held six public engagement meetings about the project with Heights-area residents and neighborhood groups, such as the Houston Heights Association and Greater Heights Super Neighborhood Council, and made several changes to the plan based on community feedback. Turner referenced that process in his February statement saying the plan would move forward, adding that 11th Street is a “high-crash corridor with 10 percent more crashes than similar streets across the state.”
But on Tuesday he said he wanted to “take a closer look at it,” according to Benton, who said the mayor is not retracting his statement of support from two-plus months ago.
“That would kind of imply he’s not going to move forward (with the plan),” Benton said. “At this point, he’s saying, ‘I’ve heard everybody. Let’s bring the departments together, talk to everybody again, review the plans and decide how to move forward.’ ”
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