Successful 15th Street cycle track. Photo by ElvertBarnes on Flickr.

First announced more than a year ago, DDOT’s plans for crosstown protected bike lanes on L and M streets NW are now on the brink of being cancelled or postponed indefinitely.

At a confirmation hearing for DDOT Director nominee Terry Bellamy on Friday, Council committee chair Tommy Wells asked about the status of the L and M Street cycle tracks, which would run between Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Avenues. Bellamy replied, “Right now, it’s on hold.” Wells followed up by asking, “What does that mean? You may not do it?” Bellamy replied: “We may not.”

Ask Bellamy, Mayor Gray, and other officials to keep moving forward on these projects through a petition from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

The plans are currently at 65 percent design, Bellamy explained. “We’re bringing back the bike team for updates,” Bellamy continued. “There was some concern over the amount of parking that was going to be removed.”

However, it’s not clear who exactly is concerned about the parking removal, or even how much parking might be removed, as DDOT’s bicycle program has not released any plans for discussion since the conceptual designs were put on display in March 2010.

Although similar plans implemented along 15th Street NW garnered little opposition, Wells noted that parking changes can be difficult. “Politically, I know it’s very hard,” he told Bellamy. “Whenever there’s one parking space removed, I hear about it.”

When parking is removed, Wells said, “we need to know the impact on our businesses.” The chairman, however, urged DDOT to prioritize the needs of District residents over those of suburban commuters. “Generally it’s going to be a DC resident who needs that safe bike lane,” he said.

Bellamy stated that “there were also some transit issues,” though it’s unclear what those issues might be since a very limited number of bus routes run on L and M streets. According to WMATA’s map, there is no bus service on L Street east of 19th Street, and no service on M Street east of 18th Street.

DDOT had originally planned the cycle tracks for I and L Streets, but moved them to L and M streets after criticism that the plans ignored an existing study of bus priority along I Street.

GGW proposal for downtown mobility. Purple: Cycle tracks. Blue: Existing bike lanes. Red: K Street Transitway. Orange: Bus lanes that also allow bikes, or bus lanes as well as bike lanes.

The majority of the project area is located within the Golden Triangle BID and the Downtown DC BID. These organizations had been connecting property owners and businesses to DDOT’s bike program staff as the lanes went through the design process.

Parking removal was not a major hang-up in these discussions, which included a wide range of issues, such as loading zones and intersection treatments. Over the past six months, these discussions have slowed as progress on the cycle tracks ground to a halt.

Looking ahead, Wells asked Bellamy: “How do you weigh whether you move forward or not?” Bellamy replied that the agency will do a benefit analysis, without providing specifics on what will be weighed.

In its response to Bellamy’s statements, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association laid out some questions that should be considered as part of a benefit analysis. “How many parkers per day will be inconvenienced, compared to the projected cyclists served? … When considering the benefits, as Director Bellamy states, will health and environmental benefits be included?” the advocacy group asked.

“Previously,” WABA continued, “DDOT’s stated rationale [for delay] had been a need to further study the impacts of the existing cycle tracks before continuing.” If Bellamy continues to wait for this report, people who want to safely bike across downtown may be waiting a long time.

At a meeting earlier this month, DDOT staff said that an interim report evaluating the 15th Street cycle track and other new facilities will be available in November 2011 and the final report will be released in April 2012. That’s more than a year after DDOT converted the lane to two-way operation, and more than two years after the initial contraflow lane was installed on 15th Street. That’s a long time to wait for a bike lane, but that’s okay — we’ve been waiting since 1979.

Both Capital Bikeshare and the downtown cycle track plan were announced as the two high-profile bicycling initiatives of Bellamy’s predecessor, Gabe Klein. Capital Bikeshare has given the District a significant boost in bike-friendliness. Its popularity has led the red bikes to gain momentum under the Gray administration.

But bike sharing is only half of the equation. “The expectation for bicycle infrastructure is expanding,” Wells noted at the hearing. Mayor Gray has stated that he wants the District to achieve platinum status as a “Bicycle Friendly Community.”

In this context, Bellamy’s equivocation on this central piece of bike infrastructure is an alarming signal. It comes as a surprise to some in the city’s transportation community and flies in the face of DDOT’s own long-term plans, since crosstown cycle tracks were first outlined in the agency’s 2005 Bicycle Master Plan.

During his tenure, Klein hired Bellamy away from Arlington County to become DDOT’s Director of Operations. Bellamy clearly holds the right priorities, and at the hearing he listed expanding bicycling, walking, and transit as top goals for his tenure.

Now that Bellamy no longer has “interim” attached to his title, he may have more freedom to champion cycle tracks, though his confirmation hearing comments did not give any indication that he is energized about pursuing serious bike infrastructure as a critical part of the District’s transportation system.

Is there still a champion for these innovative projects within the agency? DDOT’s bike program, like many other departments, has more on its to-do list than it has staff capacity. Before Klein was director, the agency’s bike staff was working on other projects. Klein pushed the bike program to make downtown cycle tracks a priority.

Now that Klein and his interest in cycle tracks have moved to Chicago, it’s not clear that the agency’s bicycle staff has has the interest, capacity or ability to keep this project moving forward without the director making it an agency priority. As a result, DDOT’s bike staff has been focusing on smaller, more traditional bike projects.

Is there a way forward for crosstown cycle tracks? Perhaps DDOT’s Complete Streets policy, which was also a topic at Bellamy’s confirmation hearing, should be, as Wells said, something other than just “an aspirational goal.” A critical part of complete streets is making sure that staff are able to design roads for all users, so engineers consider bikes as well as cars and have tools at their disposal to include non-automobile users in a roadway’s design.

Otherwise, it falls to the bicycle program to make sure that even the most basic bike lane designs, which have been accepted by state highway officials for years, are included in the agency’s road projects. Instead of fighting within the agency for a simple bike lane, an effective Complete Streets policy would allow bicycle program staff to instead focus on more challenging, high-impact projects like cycle tracks.

The bottom line is that it’s simply irresponsible of DDOT to encourage people to hop on bikes while neglecting to create safe places for them to ride. Crosstown cycle tracks will serve significant numbers of cyclists each day in a downtown environment where many do not feel safe on a bike today. They are too important to let DDOT roll back the clock on its commitment.

WABA is asking bicyclists and supporters of bike infrastructure to contact DC officials and ask them to move forward on these projects. Sign their petition to Bellamy, Mayor Gray, bicycle program head Jim Sebastian, and Wells now.