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Editorial: Council gets Broadway blowback

'New roads; new ruts.'

– G. K. Chesterton

The Sonoma City Council veered precariously into oncoming traffic last week when it voted 3-2 to decrease the number of lanes on the north stretch of Broadway from five to four.

The vote was impelled by an opportunity coming in the fall to piggyback on Caltrans plans to enhance Highway 12, which Broadway is a part of, by also having the transportation agency's crews re-stripe the city's 'gateway' thoroughfare at the same time.

It's essentially a freebie for Sonoma, and city officials have to get their work order into Caltrans soon if they want any changes made.

And, thus, the question posed: Is there a better configuration of Broadway that can be realized through the re-striping?

For most of its length, Broadway is five lanes – two going north, two south and a middle turn lane. It's a bit wide at certain pedestrian crossings and doesn't serve bikes well. That said, it provides a smooth ride in and out of town and only backs up on weekdays around 3 p.m. near the high school, and on touristy weekends it may take a minute to turn onto the Plaza. It suffers the occasional accident, but isn't extraordinarily dangerous.

It does what it was built to do: Get cars where they need to go.

And therein lies the problem with Broadway: It's current incarnation was designed in the 1950s – when catering to automobiles was a road's primary, if not sole, purpose. If Broadway were to be built new today, it would be designed to promote cycling and walkability, narrow the length of pedestrian crossings, mitigate speeds and make optimal use of space for parking. It would do many things it doesn't do now.

But, much like beauty, road improvements are in the eye of the beholder.

Knowing this, the City of Sonoma solicited community feedback in an online survey, which offered a trio of possible designs – one essentially keeping Broadway's fine-lane status quo – but with a fresh coat of paint – and two others, which in varying ways decreased the lanes to three while enhancing the safety and width of the bike lanes.

Turns out Sonoma has strong opinions about its gateway thoroughfare – a whopping 731 people responded to the survey, an amount city officials said was unprecedented.

The results were pretty clear: 61 percent of respondents said to keep Broadway as it is; 39 percent chose one of the two 3-lane, bike-friendly options. The people, as they say, had spoken.

But then the City Council took a detour.

At its April 20 meeting, Sonoma Mayor Logan Harvey lobbied for a fourth option – a four lane Broadway along the half-mile stretch toward the Napa Street intersection. His reasoning wasn't unsound: It's not as drastic a change as three lanes, wouldn't affect the busier northbound lanes approaching the Plaza, and would at least provide room for a buffered bike lane on one side, with a narrower one on the other.

But in Sonoma, the validity of a proposal isn't always as important as the validity of how it's proposed. And this case – disregarding an overwhelming community survey result in favor of one elected official's extemporized outline with no public input – went over about as well as a banana-seat Schwinn Stingray with ape-hanger handlebars.

In other words, not so cool.

Letters to the editor started rolling in; online comments were predictably nasty. Harvey was called everything from 'an elitist Bolshevik' to a 'pander(er) to the scofflaw bicycle bunch' to much worse. Recalls have been demanded; ballot-box comeuppance has been vowed.

What's been lost in the discussion is the fact that city leaders have been urging a three-lane, bike-safe Broadway for far longer than Harvey's been on the council. According to the 2016 Circulation Element of the General plan -- which recommends a reduction from five lanes to three -- fewer lanes 'would be expected to operate safely and efficiently, would help to regulate vehicle speeds in a pedestrian-oriented area, would create space for bicycle facilities, and would potentially create space for additional parking spaces.'

In other words, more bikes and fewer lanes isn't Harvey's idea – it's Sonoma's long-range goal.

So why would an already agreed-upon solution harness the community's ire to such a degree – even in the midst of a pandemic?

That blasted survey, of course.

It goes without saying that a city's elected officials can't base every vote on a survey – the whole concept of representative democracy is predicated on the idea that voters elect people who will make decisions based on their best judgment, even if that judgment is at times not entirely popular. Otherwise, why have elected officials at all – just conduct a survey and let the majority make the decisions?

Still, the City of Sonoma doesn't conduct official surveys about upcoming council considerations very often – so when it does, it sends a message: We want to know what you think and that will factor in our decision.

When the community responds with a more than 20 percent differential, they probably expect it to not only be a factor – but be a major factor in the decision.

When it isn't, there's going to be some additional community feedback, to put it lightly.

An oft-heard saying goes, 'If voting made any difference, they wouldn't let us do it.'

It's sentiment like that which needs to be reconfigured more than Broadway.

Email Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

This column has been updated to reflect that the 4-lane proposal for the half-mile stretch of Broadway near the Plaza includes both a wider bike lane on the southbound side and a narrower bike lane on the northbound side.

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