Closing the gap
Proposed bridge would complete Bikeway 99, boost city’s cycling infrastructure
Chico has a reputation as a great place to ride a bike and it’s only going to grow now that the League of American Bicyclists recognizes the city as a Gold Bicycle Friendly Community—up a notch from its previous designation of silver. According to the league’s scorecard, Chico earned points for its mainstream bike culture and robust cycling safety and education outreach efforts by community groups, and also ranked well in terms of its engineering and network of bike routes.
However, Chico’s bicycle infrastructure has plenty of room for improvement, said Janine Rood, executive director of Chico Velo Cycling Club. All over town, there are examples of disconnected paths that leave bicyclists wondering, “Where do I go from here?”
The bike-town reputation may actually have been detrimental to progress in recent years, Rood said. “I think the city and cyclists had both gotten kind of complacent and said, ‘It’s so great to ride a bicycle in Chico; what more could you need?’”
Quite a lot, actually: Chico Velo has identified 175 potential projects to boost bicycling infrastructure. Working with city staff, the group has narrowed that down to eight “super projects” where upgrades are most needed. One ambitious idea is turning Lindo Channel into a greenway complete with a multimodal path.
“It would be Chico’s premier east-to-west bicycle corridor,” Rood said.
Another “super project” is already underway—Bikeway 99. Originally envisioned as an arterial, north-to-south route following the Highway 99 corridor from Eaton Road to Skyway, progress paused after the bridge crossing Little Chico Creek by Teichert Ponds was completed in 2012. Currently, the path spits southbound cyclists into the parking lot of Chico Mall, and from there it can be difficult to navigate the congested traffic of East 20th Street.
Now the city is floating a concept that would allow pedestrians, disabled people and cyclists to avoid that mess altogether. It’s a solution that city officials say could become Chico’s signature piece of bicycle infrastructure—a bridge over East 20th Street.
The city’s general plan calls for multi-modal transportation elements and “complete streets,” says Brendan Ottoboni, the city’s director of public works-engineering. For instance, the design for the Esplanade Corridor Improvement Plan includes a separated bike lane, ADA-compliant crosswalks and push-button signals. And there’s a big push from the state for municipalities to invest in so-called “active transportation.”
“The whole theory is that by having good, safe bike and pedestrian facilities, you’re taking people out of cars and getting them walking or riding bikes,” he said. “By nature of having functional facilities, people use them more. … We have a good backbone of infrastructure, and we’re looking to expand on that and complete the network. We want there to be good connectivity so people can ride all over town without impeding vehicular traffic.”
Bikeway 99 is integral to that vision. Funding for the project dried up following the Great Recession, but more money has been trickling down from the state over the last couple of years. Last week, a new link was added with the completion of the crosswalk at Highway 32 and East Eighth Street. And the city has already secured funding for the southernmost section of the bike path, from East 20th Street to the Skyway. But the biggest obstacle remains. During recent public workshops to solicit input on the crossing at East 20th Street, the city’s Public Works Department has introduced several design options, some more elaborate than others, said Tyler Bodnar, the city’s leading engineer on the project. “We want to bring lots of alternatives to the table, right? Some of it almost looks a little bit crazy.”
That includes building a tunnel underneath the roadway, but most people favor something more open and visible. The least expensive option would be adding a functional crosswalk at East 20th Street and Business Lane (where Red Lobster, Olive Garden, etc., reside), but thus far, public feedback has been that cyclists and pedestrians don’t feel safe crossing the roadway at all. “The public is saying, ‘We don’t see how putting in a signal and crosswalk would be any different,’” Bodnar said.
People seem to want a bridge. The city has contracted with Donald MacDonald, a San Francisco-based architect who helped design the new Bay Bridge, and he has illustrated several concepts, including one that incorporates elements that look like bike spokes. Bodnar says public works will narrow the potential designs down during a third and final public workshop this summer and then seek approval from the Chico City Council.
The city has secured funding for the preliminary engineering through the federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, as well as California’s Active Transportation Program. Bodnar estimated that the total cost will run between $3 million and $8 million.
“That’s not an absurd amount of money for a project like this,” he said. “Some of these numbers sound alarming, but it’s a massive piece of infrastructure.” He emphasized that the project would be paid for with grants, not the city’s general fund dollars that could go toward, say, fixing potholes.
Ottoboni says Bikeway 99 is a prime candidate for further grant funding because the bridge would close a gap, linking more than 4 miles of an arterial bike path. And granting organizations have been encouraging Chico to shoot for the stars, Bodnar said.
“They would love to see a signature project in Chico,” he said. “They recognize us as a bicycling community. They see us going after three, four, five projects a year when this grant funding is available. And they are literally telling us to go bigger—that if we have the ridership, give this community something it would appreciate.”