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Nuanced Scottsdale ‘road diet’ political debate in full bloom at City Hall

Members of Scottsdale City Council expressed points of disagreement about the purpose of certain ‘improvements’ sparked around resident concerns at a project along 68th Street where the four-lane thoroughfare will be reduced to two lanes. (Photos: Arianna Grainey/DigitalFreePress.com)

Perceptions around ‘road diet’ measures alert Scottsdale residents

By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press

Scottsdale City Council hosted a detailed, impassioned public hearing earlier this week where residents from across the municipality came to hear facts, figures and public deliberations of what some might consider any unlikely political touchstone.

Coined ‘road diet,’ the Kiva Auditorium at Scottsdale City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd., Tuesday, May 16, was filled with local residents, municipal leaders and political operators eager to share concerns, expert testimony and belay fears around ideas the reclassification of a roadway in Scottsdale could have deeper meaning.

Members of Scottsdale City Council expressed points of disagreement about the purpose of certain ‘improvements’ sparked around resident concerns at a project along 68th Street where the four-lane thoroughfare will be reduced to two lanes.

However, the width of the road is staying the same and police, fire and medical services will not be adversely impacted, city officials confirm.

The May 16 work study discussion at City Hall was not about any particular project, but rather the technical merits of roadway reclassification based on motorist thresholds in concert with new modes of transportation becoming more commonplace.

“For the last 30 years, Scottsdale has developed and implemented policies and practices and plans that support high quality transportation for all users,” said Mark Melnychenko, Scottsdale transportation & streets director. “Over the last 20 years Scottsdale road re-classification have been re-evaluated to account for changing capacity based on long-term volume trends and land-use patterns. Street and roadway reclassification is a normal occurrence in transportation master planning.”

Mr. Melnychenko points out the 2008 and 2016 Scottsdale transportation master plans and further emboldened by the 2022 Transportation Action Plan are what drives the decision-making process around the reclassification of roads and streets within municipal bounds of Scottsdale

“Since 1995 Scottsdale has added 132 miles of paved paths, increased its bike lanes to almost 200 miles across the entire network. Active transportation is a key element of Scottsdale transportation plans and has been for decades,” Mr. Melnychenko said. “The city’s planned lane reduction projects will not adversely effect emergency response.”

In general terms, Mr. Melnychenko explains, a street or road experiencing lower capacity will equal a lower classification.

“The curb-to-curb configuration stays the same,” he explained of what the Scottsdale ‘road diet’ project includes. “Elements of re-striping includes all kinds of roadway improvements … sharing the road and safety first and what is the most effective manner to improve the use for all users.”

The improvements along 68th Street — from Indian School Road to Thomas Road — will reduce the four-lane roadway to two lanes and add bike lanes, pedestrian improvements, left turn bays and intersection improvements at Osborn Road.

In addition, the project will add two rectangular rapid flashing beacon crossings, one at Avalon and the other at 2nd Street. The project will keep the on-street parking on 68th Street north of Osborn Road and add turn lanes, city officials say.

A ‘road diet’ heavy in speculation

A major point of explanation was the data collection of local motorists using local thoroughfares, which Mr. Melnychenko says is evaluated and presented every two years through a biannual traffic volume & collision report produced by the Traffic Engineering Transportation Department.

Found part of the report is a litany of local traffic data serving to illustrate where, among other things, the majority of local collisions are occurring, where the majority of congestion is happening — in particular at what times of the day — and the type of collisions occurring.

“This occurs every two years where staff collects traffic volumes,” Mr. Melnychenko explained pointing out a historical examination of Scottsdale traffic is widely shaped by the regional and interstate freeway system.

“In 1989, the regional freeway system was in its infancy,” he said while showing City Council and those in attendance the development of State Route 51 and Loop 101 as it stands today. “The development of the freeway system has directed traffic away from city streets and the creation of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve has lowered development density in portions of north Scottsdale.”

Mr. Melnychenko explained to City Council a steady increase in individual mobility and multifamily housing units approved and coming online are tenets of municipal considerations for roadway classifications.

“In the past 20 years there have been a steady increase in number multifamily housing units in Scottsdale,” he said noting data points suggest a surprising conclusion.

“Planning department data shows between January 2010 and and December 2022 approximately 26,500 units have been approved through the entitlement process. Within that same time 6,900 units received DRB approval with 10,800 units being built with 2,900 units currently under construction. Despite the growth in the multifamily housing the traffic data for the same time period in this city remains constant showing total mile traveled 3.8 and 4 million miles per year.”

Fact, fiction and a steady ‘road diet’ of misinformation

Following the detailed report provided by Mr. Melnychenko, Scottsdale Councilman Tom Durham spoke in defense of the process for reclassification of any street within municipal bounds.

“We have been told many times that no one will use the bike lanes. We have also been told the bike lanes will be so crowded and the police and fire will not be able to get through,” he said. “There have been repeated claims that these plans will impede fire and police and other emergency vehicles. We just want to assure everyone that your city is not run by morons.”

Councilman Durham explained to those in attendance city leaders are not approving plans based on proposals not vetted for vital aspects of running the municipality and protecting its residents.

“We have consulted and been consulted regarding the ‘road diet’ strategy and when we look at is the width of roadway itself, the width of the roadway is not changing,” said Scottsdale Police Chief Jeff Walther. “You are changing the striping on the roadway. If we are talking about leaving the road width the same and we are talking about painting and restructuring lanes then our emergency response would not be impacted at all.”

Scottsdale Councilwoman Betty Janik is asking for a better, more detailed report on the formulaic methodology of both traffic counts and dwelling unit reports presented to City Council this past Tuesday.

“I want to see the formulas,” she said pointing out a three-year data point perspective coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic are not strong enough metrics for the reclassification of Scottsdale thoroughfares. “I have done scientific studies. I am questioning the data — three years is not good enough.”

Ms. Janik says the No. 1 issue facing residents is traffic.

“I was voted in by the people. I promise to represent the people,” she said following comments from city staff. “I don’t think the people voted on that. I don’t think ‘road diets’ represents the will of the people. I propose a five-year moratorium on ‘road diets.’”

Ms. Janik says she is skeptical of the information presented until she can do the arithmetic herself.

“I actually don’t trust the data until I can do the computation,” she said. “We are waiting at traffic lights longer and longer. I feel like I was let down by the research.”

Scottsdale Councilwoman Tammy Caputi has a different perspective.

“I think we also need to recognize the much more important issue that is going on here and that is we have folks, political agitators, even some council members using false facts and misinformation to create wedge issues in our community and try to control our agenda,” she said during the work session discussion.

“The people who are complaining about wasting time and money are actually the people who are creating the divisions that are wasting our time and money. Most of us up here, we recognize we make pretty good public policy based on facts and data, not rumor and fear.”

Ms. Caputi says the issue for her is about communication.

“We have been told repeatedly these changes to the roadways will make them unsafe and we have heard from both chiefs that is not true,” she said of the Scottsdale police and fire chiefs who spoke during the public hearing.

“This is a really, really small issue. We have voter-approved plans we are following. We are using our plans to focus our decision-making process,” she said pointing out what she believes to be a real concern. “The recurring misinformation that gets out in our community … I propose we put together a white paper together on this … I think we should be at the forefront of communication. It doesn’t matter if we get a postcard to every Scottsdale resident if it doesn’t have the right information.”

Scottsdale Mayor Ortega says slowing down and looking around, perhaps smelling the flowers, is what Scottsdale is all about. (Photo: Arianna Grainey/DigitalFreePress.com)
Tortured data and the ‘road diet’ narrative

Scottsdale Councilman Barry Graham brought into question several aspects of the motivation for reclassification of streets within Scottsdale city limits.

“We have received copious amounts of opposition letters” Mr. Graham said following a handful of questions specific to municipal requirements to be met for federal funds to be used for 68th Street improvements now approved by City Council.

“It does feel like to me we have stirred up some controversy by accepting strings attached money that benefits a small group at the expense of a large group. I think some of my colleagues have been misled and you hear and see with your own eyes what is going on.”

Scottsdale Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield says Scottsdale encountering more traffic is a reasonable expectation.

“We can realistically anticipate increases in traffic over the next several years from the additional apartment houses, condos and businesses coming to Scottsdale as well as coming to our neighboring cities as they build up and build out,” she said. “Residents rightly see more traffic coming to Scottsdale. It’s not rocket science it’s common sense. More cars will be driven in Scottsdale and we will need more lanes not fewer lanes for people to get where they need to go.”

By her estimation, Councilwoman Littlefield says, the people have spoken loud and clear.

“The city wants the federal money … We shouldn’t be looking at the federal government as a piggy bank anyway,” she said. “There is no free lunch folks and we should learn from others regarding the ‘road diets.’ While this may seem like a minor technical issue to some it has become a divisive political issue for many and needs to be decided by the voters. We have divided the city and outraged people to the extent I have not seen before in Scottsdale —- and that is saying something!”

Scottsdale Mayor Ortega says slowing down and looking around, perhaps smelling the flowers, is what Scottsdale is all about.

“We all love Scottsdale. We want to see and feel that,” he said of the idea Scottsdale is a place that moves a little slower than the metropolitan area that borders it.

“I am in Scottsdale. I know that. Would it help if there were four lanes in each direction? Hell no! I wouldn’t want that on Indian School or Thomas. What are we protecting? Our Old Town area. You think we want to take out something on each side just because we want traffic to scoot through there?”

Mayor Ortega provides traffic has its own unique benefits if done the right way.

“Traffic generates a sense of place when you can calm it down, I am not afraid to say that,” he said. “That’s what my customers want … this is not a war of bicycles against cars. We all want the same thing: a sense of place for Scottsdale.”

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