Streets for People / Monroe County to City’s Request for Bike Lane: Drop Dead

For those who remember the infamous New York City Daily News headline “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD” in 1975, prompted by then President Ford saying he would deny federal assistance to spare New York City from bankruptcy, Monroe County’s continued denial of a City of Key West request for one block of bike lane, seems appropriate. While Gerald R. Ford never explicitly said those words and no one at the County has either, the effect of the County’s actions, at least to date, is the same.

Southard Street has had a bike lane from White Street down to Whitehead at the Green Parrot for as long as anyone can remember. Last year when the City rebuilt the sidewalk and street in the 300 and 400 blocks of Southard, bicycle enthusiasts were hopeful that the Vision of the City’s adopted Bike Plan would be fulfilled, and the bike lane would finally be extended into the busy 300 block and on into the popular Truman Waterfront Park. Alas, as has happened with so many projects on this island, the 300 block was repainted exactly as it had been before, with “Reserved Parking” for County officials (State Attorney Investigators specifically) on the public right-of-way in the City’s street and no bike lane where the Bike Plan says there should be one. Why? Because the County apparently prioritizes convenient parking for a few employees’ private vehicles over the safety of the biking public. Even when there’s ample parking for employees behind their building.

We did a similar story this time last year, just as the paint was drying on a newly repaved 300 block of Southard. One year later, even though Mayor Teri Johnston and her staff have tried to get the bike lane done, they continue to be stymied by an uncooperative County staff and County Commissioner in the person of Jim Scholl. When we asked Mr. Scholl to intercede on behalf of people on bikes he replied: “At this time it is unlikely those parking spaces will be converted to other uses.” But it isn’t too late for the County to reverse its obstinate and selfish stand. Let’s dive into the details and circle back to history in the person of Gerald R. Ford.

What’s Out There Today

The one-way pair of Southard and Fleming Streets bicycle lanes are well known, covering the 1100 blocks from White Street all the way down to the 400 blocks at Whitehead. And with the 300 and 400 blocks of Southard recently rebuilt and repaved, the new and improved bike lane in the 400 block of Southard Street looks great until it peters out just before you get to Whitehead. So, all of a sudden, if you are going to the Truman Waterfront Park, bikes suddenly have to take the lane and move into car traffic just where the street becomes two-way and gets even busier.

What the Bike Plan Says To Do

The City’s adopted Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan, which proposes to link up pieces of bike lanes into a safer and cohesive network, indicates on page 34 of its Vision Network to replace the current sharrows in the 300 block with a proper bike lane to complete the network all the way into Truman Waterfront Park. The perfect time to make that change WAS during a repaving. But when construction was complete the street configuration was put back just the same as before, with parking on-street for County officials private vehicles and no bike lane.

Why didn’t they follow the Bike Plan?

A Parking Crunch in 2001, Due to Construction in the Area, Led to a Never-Ending Contract to Provide the County Spaces On City Right-of-Way

When we asked why no bike lane was put in, per the Bike Plan, we learned that the City and County have a contract dating back to 2001 to provide free on-street parking for County employees in the Jackson Square County Courthouse complex along this block during work hours. The agreement begins:

“WHEREAS, the County is experiencing parking problems at Jackson Square due to on-going construction in this area, and

WHEREAS, to help alleviate these parking problems, the City has agreed to lease certain parking areas to the County that are located on portions of City street that border Jackson Square…”

We’ve been told the County must agree to let go of these spaces, by amending the 23-year old contract. The document states: “This agreement may only be modified by a written amendment signed by duly authorized representatives of both parties.”

Must have been the same people who penned a similar never-ending agreement with Pier B allowing cruise ships in perpetuity unless BOTH parties agree to change it. I mean who in the world writes all these unfavorable contracts at the City’s expense? And why wasn’t a sunset date put on a solution that was meant to address a temporary parking crunch that no longer exists?

On the weekday mornings and afternoons, we’ve been in the 300 block of Southard and noticed that most of the cars parking for free on the block, don’t have a “Monroe County Jackson Square Parking Permit” so it seems like it is just free parking for anyone, undercutting Mr. Scholl’s office response that there’s a “demand” for that parking for State Attorney Investigators. AND each time we’ve been in the neighborhood, there’s been enough empty County parking spaces on Thomas Street and the County lot behind the building to accommodate the number of cars parked on Southard – permit or not. I suppose the State Attorney Investigators would have to walk another couple hundred feet though. So, their parking convenience trumps following the Bike Plan and completing the Southard Street Bike Lane. Hmmm….

President Ford Changed His Mind. Can Monroe County?

For a few years now Mayor Teri Johnston has repeated the mantra to staff that she wants to see opportunities for bike and pedestrian improvements with every street rebuild or repaving and we’ve captured some of those instances here, here, here, here, here, here and on other occasions. She’s also been birddogging this particular issue too. She asked the then City Manager Patti McLaughlin and the City Attorney’s Office to get this bike lane done. Both offices hit stone walls with their counterparts at the County. We asked County Commissioner Jim Scholl to help, and his response was similar. That’s where we stand today.

Back in 1975, after that infamous “Drop Dead” headline, President Ford eventually DID indeed change his mind and sign legislation that provided federal loans to New York City. Let’s hope Monroe County officials relent, change their minds, and finally agree to do the right thing. Completing this bike lane all the way through to the park, as the Bike Plan calls for, helps achieve a safer bicycle network. And that’s better for everyone. People in cars and on bikes.

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Chris Hamilton is founder of the local advocacy group Friends of Car-Free Key West & Duval Street/Historic Downtown. Subscribe to the blog. Follow on Facebook and Twitter. A native of the District of Columbia, where for a couple decades+ he led nationally renowned efforts promoting transit, bike, walk and smart growth for Arlington County, VA’s DOT. Chris has lived in Key West since 2015. He lives car-free downtown and works and volunteers for a few non-profits. You can find three years’ worth of KONK Life Streets for People column articles here and here. 


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