Neil Baunsgard feels lucky he has found a relatively safe path to commute to work on his bicycle every morning.
“It took me a long time to find my route to work, because there was no robust process to identify a good way,” said Baunsgard, who works for The Environmental Center.
But outside of his commute, bicycling around Bend feels significantly more difficult — and dangerous.
That’s why the 29-year-old board member of the Summit West Neighborhood Association is looking toward a possible $180 million city transportation bond to help make his commutes in the future safer. He moved from a suburb of Seattle five years ago to escape spending his whole life sitting in traffic, he said — and he wants Bend to escape the same fate.
“I moved (to Bend) for the medium-size town feel and how that allows for livability and ability to move around town without having to spend my whole life in a car,” Baunsgard said.
After several months of discussion, on Feb. 5, the Bend City Council will vote on whether to send a bond in the ballpark of $180 million to the May ballot. Several city councilors consider the nearly finalized list of transportation projects the bond would pay for a balance between improving traffic congestion and making streets safer for walkers and bikers throughout the city . Traffic congestion and safety have been named as top priorities by community surveys and phone polling.
Highlights include a $36.5 million overpass over the railroad on Reed Market Road, widening Empire Avenue to five lanes near the U.S. Highway 97 interchange and money for comprehensive, connected bike lanes throughout the city.
“I think this is the biggest investment we’ve ever seen in walking and biking infrastructure in Bend,” said Councilor Gena Goodman-Campbell, who advocated to build a citywide connected bike system. “But we could always do more.”
While a landmark for pedestrian and bicycle safety in comparison to past bond measures, for some, the bond does not go far enough, fast enough for the city to catch up to its transportation needs, and does not invest enough in public transit.
“I think as a community we are so focused on the challenges around transportation, I’m disheartened to not see a larger bond,” Baunsgard said.
In December, the city conducted a phone survey of 300 residents to test their support for a package of transportation projects that would cost around $190 million, and another, larger set of projects that would cost closer to $275 million.
During this process, several councilors have expressed supporting a bigger bond, as it would allow the city to get more projects done more quickly and catch up to the transportation needs of a rapidly growing city. But public opinion polling showed 62% of residents would likely support a $190 million bond that would require them to pay $190 on average a year in property taxes, while only 44% would support paying the large bond that would average $275 a year.
“I think at some level this is the appropriate path,” said City Councilor Bruce Abernethy, who initially advocated for a larger bond package. “That is a lot of money, even though it’s a smaller package. I think the city has shown in its last bond we were able to spend the money wisely.”
With a smaller bond package comes sacrifices. For example, a program that invests money in making neighborhood streets safer by infilling sidewalks and putting in more lights was cut from $16 million down to $6 million in the final project.
Six of the 44 projects listed in the bond package are marked specifically as multi-modal — meaning improvements for walkers, bikers and public transit users.
But for those concerned about the number of projects aimed at fixing traffic congestion over safety, Mayor Sally Russell said people should consider all improvements to intersections come with inherent improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians.
For example: a proposed signal or roundabout at an intersection currently without one would include better sidewalks and bike lanes than exist now.
“You don’t make it just more efficient for the cars,” Russell said. “You make it safer for anyone moving through that intersection.”
But the bond still doesn’t do enough for people who can’t drive and aren’t physically capable of biking and walking, said Denise LaBuda, the director of strategic initiatives for the Council on Aging of Central Oregon.
“We’re soon going to have a quarter of our population in Deschutes County over the age of 65,” LaBuda said. Recent census statistics reported 21% of people were over 65 in 2017, she said.
“The population won’t want to drive, won’t be safe to drive or won’t be able to drive. And that’s a bigger group than any city has dealt with before,” she said.
Currently, there is $8 million in the proposed bond to help Cascades East Transit — the agency in charge of all public transit in Bend — build bus shelters and mobility hubs, which would act as smaller bus stations spread through the city to alleviate pressure off the main hub at Hawthorne Station.
LaBuda applauds the city’s effort to improve traveling for those who can walk and bike, but she fears not enough is being done quickly enough to prepare for an aging population. While she recognizes public transit isn’t directly the city’s responsibility, LaBuda said the city should be taking a more active leadership role in improving it.
“Our cities are built for parents with young children who drive,” LaBuda said. “Don’t forget there is a group who do not drive and do not have the capacity to walk a quarter of a mile to a bus station … Let’s plan for that now.”