CITYWIDE — The plan that is supposed to guide the roll-out of bicycle infrastructure in Santa Monica has won a great deal of acclaim since the City Council approved it in November 2011.
It has received two planning awards from the Los Angeles and state chapters of the American Planning Association, and staff attended a meeting of the bicycle minds in Vancouver, Canada in part to discuss aspects of Santa Monica’s Bike Action Plan.
Bicycle activists and staffers alike, however, worry that despite the widespread praise, the Bike Action Plan may be losing critical funding at a time that it needs it the most.
On June 12, the Santa Monica City Council approved a series of adjustments to its two-year budget that reflected both the changing economic climate and the ever-worsening conditions in funding from the state level.
In the capital improvement budget, which funds infrastructure projects like new streets and sewers, $300,000 that many had expected to be available for new bike lanes and other connections was gone.
Money for bike parking had been slashed by $90,000 in the 2012-13 year, the funding increasing slowly to $150,000 by 2016-17.
In the budget approved in 2011, staff had put aside $150,000 for bike parking every year through 2015-16.
On top of that, matching funds for grants that had been planned for before the City Council had approved the Bike Action Plan were now being taken out of the $1.2 million set aside when the council approved it in November. City officials who developed the plan said that was not the original intention.
The accumulation of funding changes caused Richard McKinnon, a planning commissioner and vocal supporter of the bike plan, to send a flurry of e-mails in advance of the hearing to question the movement of money.
“If we want this program that we’ve embarked upon to be a leading program, we need to rethink our priorities this evening and give direction to our officials to change it,” McKinnon told council members.
Officials say that bike infrastructure is still a top priority, with $5 million put aside for it in the capital improvement budget in 2012-13 alone and another $3 million the following year.
That cash comes from various sources, including grants won by staff for the bicycle programs.
Money was moved around to help City Hall adjust to the loss of the Redevelopment Agency, an entity that funded infrastructure projects through portions of property tax dollars, said Martin Pastucha, the director of Public Works.
With that source of money gone, many projects may be put on hold, including the park directly in front of City Hall and the creation of new affordable housing.
“We had to shuffle funding to meet the community priorities,” Pastucha said.
That meant saving the $300,000 that would have been used for bicycle lanes and folding lane painting projects into the annual repaving budget so that bike lanes could be added to their designated streets as workers completed other planned tasks.
The movement of other money, including the bike parking, was required to make Proposition C money stretch over more projects, including grant matches — money that local agencies have to put up to win grants from the state and federal government, Pastucha said.
“How you cobble the money together to provide these matches isn’t clean,” he said, referencing the numerous pots that have to be tapped in order to create a funding source to win a grant.
The inability to pin down where money is flowing to and from frustrates bicycle activists like Cynthia Rose of Santa Monica Spoke.
Although she heard about some of the funding changes the afternoon before the City Council meeting, she still hasn’t been able to track down all the changes.
“All I know is that it’s not good and we have lost money,” Rose said. “If we have a plan that’s so wonderful, why is it happening?”
Some city officials are concerned that moving money around now will jeopardize the capacity of the program in the future.
Staff have managed to win $8 million in grant funding that will fund the Bike Action Plan, said Lucy Dyke, the transportation planning manager at City Hall.
If City Hall removes some support, it means that new money will chase old projects, she said.
“Now is the time to keep building on what you had,” she said. “I think that there really is a shift in the sense of using money for some future thing or ones that weren’t funded to go back and backfill things that were already funded or were funded by grants.”
In a way, she said, grants feed on themselves. Once you start working on a project, it makes it that much easier to get the next pot of money to start another one.
That’s why she’s concerned about the fact that the new budget proposes putting up over $1 million as a match for a bike share program which Dyke believed would be funded by City Hall.
Bike shares allow residents to check out bicycles to use around the city, keeping them out of cars.
The opportunity arose to get the bike share program in place before its original 2016 start date, and officials jumped at the chance to do so.
What they didn’t realize was that it meant that money they thought had been promised for the grant match needed to pay for the program hadn’t yet been set aside because it was originally supposed to happen in 2016.
“Now we ask for the bike share grant to be moved up, and we have to provide the grant money,” Dyke said. “At least a portion of that is coming from the $2.5 million. There may or may not be money available for the next grant.”
While pieces of the Bike Action Plan, like striping, may go on in a more limited way — a fact which comes with its own problems, in Dyke’s opinion — she fears that bigger, more difficult projects may not get off the ground.
“A lot of people wanted separate bike facilities that are expensive and hard to plan,” Dyke said. “A cycle track is never something that’s going to be cheap and easy and one that you can do with a coat of paint.”
If you ask April Economides, taking money from bike infrastructure is one of the worst decisions city government can make.
Economides is a principal with Green Octopus Consulting, and she makes her living making a business case for bicycles.
Getting more people on bicycles can increase traffic at local businesses, improve health and happiness and create new jobs, and she’s seen it in Long Beach, the town where she lives and works.
Long Beach has a lot of aspects that aren’t particularly progressive, Economides will be the first to admit, but in bicycles, the city is ahead of Santa Monica.
The progress on bicycle infrastructure has brought media attention, 18 new bicycle-related businesses and large conference, complete with tourists and hotel guests.
“The real proof is in the economic pudding,” Economides said.