Traffic Tie-Ups

The city pays up to a half-million dollars for another study regarding the proposed Aviation Parkway extension

Downtown warehouse district business people are confused. They don't understand why city traffic planners want to direct more cars through the already congested area.

Mark Berman, owner of Benjamin Plumbing Supply on Sixth Street, just east of Stone Avenue, comments: "It doesn't make any sense. You don't add cars to current traffic problems."

The so-called "last mile" of the Barraza-Aviation Parkway has been an expensive and controversial concept for more than 20 years. By the early 1990s, the City Council had approved a $100 million at-grade route linking Broadway Boulevard with St. Mary's Road near I-10. Now a third plan has been proposed for part of the project.

Growing out of a push to improve the warehouse district (See "The Last Mile," Feb. 12, 2004), this proposal would direct Aviation traffic between Broadway and Stone onto an extension of Stevens Avenue, which runs for a short stretch along the north side of downtown's railroad tracks.

Gene Caywood, longtime chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee for the last mile of the parkway, believes this change is imperative. Acknowledging the Stevens alignment pits one part of downtown against another, Caywood says: "We need to provide a way to get traffic off of Broadway and Congress Street, or we'll never revitalize downtown."

Artist David Aguirre, who chairs the Warehouse Arts Management Organization, suggests: "All of the parkway traffic is now being dumped in one place (at Broadway Boulevard). Basically, what this proposal asks is: Where do we want to dump it next?"

Currently, almost 37,000 vehicles a day use Broadway to enter or exit downtown, but studies show 70 percent of them are just passing through. To relieve congestion, a consultant--with the support of the city's Department of Transportation--late last year recommended implementing what is called the "Sixth Street Disconnect" option.

Starting at Fourth Avenue, this two-lane, limited-access roadway would connect with Sixth Street just east of Stone Avenue. Estimated to cost $5.5 million, 60 percent of that amount could be available for construction by 2007.

Implementing the roadway would require demolishing three buildings, including the beloved Small Planet Bakery. While many people bemoan that possibility, Caywood argues it is a great improvement over the currently adopted plan, which removes 11 historic structures.

In addition to the demolition, the estimated traffic impacts of the proposal would be substantial, especially around Sixth Street and Stone Avenue. The intersection now functions fairly well at rush hour, but would become severely congested during the morning if the Stevens alignment is implemented.

The consultant's report, however, concludes this traffic condition is primarily caused by vehicles on Stone Avenue. Andy McGovern, design engineering manager with the city's Transportation Department, concurs. "Just adding more traffic to one leg (of the intersection)," he says, "doesn't mean it will fall apart."

Warehouse district business people wonder about that. "Isn't it crazy to bring more motorists to Sixth Street and the railroad tracks?" one of them asked at a recent WAMO meeting.

At the same time, Natasha Winnik, manager of a small business operating out of a warehouse, states: "The Stevens alignment will split the district in two."

Winnik also considers the handling of the entire process by city staff members as confusing and frustrating. "I feel like every person you ask a question, you get a different answer," she says.

To clarify its message, and get more answers about the alignment proposal, the city will be doing another costly study.

According to McGovern, a consultant should be hired by the end of August and will have at least 12 months to complete a multi-task effort. Costing between $300,000 and $500,000, this new report will take a detailed look at downtown traffic patterns by utilizing a video license-plate analysis to track where cars are going.

The report will also attempt to project how vehicle movements would change if the Stevens alignment were implemented. "We'll try to read the minds of drivers," McGovern says, "to determine how many will take the chance to miss the trains (on Sixth Street)."

In addition, the new study will analyze the impacts of doing nothing further about downtown traffic, as well as including preparation of a final design for the Stevens alignment. As part of the process, the consultant will be required to do a lot of public outreach.

So far, the Stevens proposal has generally not been well received. The Dunbar/Spring Neighborhood Association at the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Stone has come out against it, and several business owners in the warehouse district have serious reservations.

While Berman would like the proposed roadway to remain on the south side of the railroad tracks, both Aguirre and Winnik want the city to look at other alternatives to the Stevens alignment. "Give the traffic (on Barraza-Aviation) options before they get downtown," Aguirre says, "like 22nd Street and Euclid Avenue."

Aguirre also says WAMO will come up with its own position on the proposed alignment in a few months. "We'll collaborate with others in the downtown area," he says, "and see what our friends and neighbors think."

For his part, Caywood believes once it is implemented, the Stevens alignment will complete that section of the parkway.

"It's a temporary solution that becomes the permanent solution," Caywood concludes. "Why do anything else (east of Stone Avenue)?"

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