Progress remains slow for Yakima’s biking network without a dedicated funding source or consistent grant money.
The City Council approved a bike master plan in March 2018 with a stated goal of installing at least five miles of the plan each year and completing the network by 2025. Actual results fell far short of those objectives, and there’s no indication the 73 miles of proposed improvements — projected to cost $6.3 million — will be anywhere near complete in three years.
Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Committee Vice Chair Phil Mattoon and longtime Bikes and Walks member Phil Hoge both agreed the COVID-19 pandemic created more challenges for their advocacy efforts and the city’s ability to move forward. Mattoon added a lack of staff in the engineering department, including a delayed replacement of departed city engineer Brett Sheffield, proved to be a major issue.
“The issue is the city pretty much basically says if we’ve got a project and it fits into the bicycle master plan, then we’ll work on the bicycle master plan,” Mattoon said. “But to do a project from the bicycle master plan on its own, they haven’t seemed that willing to look at that.”
Despite plenty of frustration, the bike ped committee can celebrate some recent completed projects and future plans to make biking in Yakima easier.
The city added bike lanes extending to J Street on North First Street, as well as on River Road from 34th to 40th avenues and 1.2 miles along Spring Creek Road, 36th Avenue, Sorenson Road and 38th Avenue around Sozo Sports Complex. Intersection improvements were made at Chestnut and 40th, and 16th Avenue where it crosses over Highway 12 and connects with the Yakima Greenway.
City engineer Bill Preston said the North First Street bike lanes should be extended south to Martin Luther King Jr. during the next phase of that project in 2023. Further into the future, he also expects bike lanes on the new Bravo Company Boulevard in addition to a 10-foot-wide sidewalk alongside the new East-West corridor connecting Yakima and Terrace Heights.
Mattoon said a recent $750,000 grant from the Washington Department of Transportation should assist in the completion of a Cowiche Canyon Trail, expected to go along Cowiche Canyon Road from the siphon near Powerhouse Road to just west of Prospect Road. Hoge said it’s possible construction for the compacted composite trail could begin this year, if contractors can start in time to meet Cowiche Creek’s fish window.
WSDOT’s improvements to Powerhouse Road west of 40th Avenue may also take cyclists into account. Preston said he expects a pathway next to the road and Hoge said biking infrastructure could be part of the discussion for improvements along that entire corridor from SunTides to the intersection of River Road and 34th Avenue.
Even those successes often represent only part of the original plans, some of which included a paved Cowiche Canyon Trail and bike lanes on Powerhouse Road.
Preston said the city works with the bike ped committee on its projects to develop plans for multiple modes of transportation, but he acknowledged accommodating those isn’t always feasible. He pointed out on some roads adding bike lanes would mean turning them into two-lane roads with a turn lane, noting a past attempt to do that for Summitview Road didn’t work well for traffic.
“Depending upon the configuration of the road you may or may not be able to do that,” said Preston, who started working for the city about 15 months ago. “If there are basically painted shoulders, that gives you some extra room to maybe do some things with the striping to add those bike lanes.”
But even on roads where that possibility exists and the master plan calls for bike lanes, the city seems reluctant to make those additions. Notable examples include disconnected bike lanes on Washington and Tieton avenues that simply stop without the road becoming any narrower.
Hoge said he’s heard bike lanes on Tieton from 40th to Fifth avenues might never happen because the road becomes too narrow to add them in while keeping all four lanes for traffic. However, solutions appear to be simpler in many of the other spots for bike lanes indicated on the master plan.
“I would say in terms of implementation low-hanging fruit is just putting stripes on the road where bike lanes are indicated,” Hoge said. “Theoretically all these roads have been vetted that they could have a bike lane and all you’ve got to do is put the paint down right and they do that every year.”
Bearded Monkey Cycling owner Lance Reese often hears complaints about Yakima’s bicycling infrastructure from avid riders, especially those who lived places where it felt like more of a priority.
He hears plenty of concerns from riders who moved from the west side in the past five years and know little about the work that went into the city’s master plan. For them, a lack of progress on any clear infrastructure plan leads to frustration as they strive for a more accessible biking network.
“You have connectivity and you have safety,” Reese said. “Can you get on your bike and ride from one place to another?”
Reese believes an influx of bikes on roadways during the COVID-19 pandemic made things even worse for cyclists when drivers returned to the streets. Andy Schmidt, a Yakima native who lives near Eisenhower High School, agreed and said that’s always been a problem for him while riding around the city.
While living for a year in Portland, Schmidt saw the difference when a city makes biking a priority and punishes drivers who antagonize cyclists. He wants the city to do more to enforce laws such as those spelled out in RCW 46.61.110 regarding passing cyclists, noting he’s experienced drivers honking, trying to run him off the road and even throwing bottles at him on his bike.
“There needs to be a top-down, concerted effort,” Schmitt said. “The biggest thing, though, is how do you get cars to respect the right of a bike to be on the road and not do certain things?”
He understands progress would be difficult and even wonders whether the Yakima community’s active enough to justify the considerable investment needed. Reese, Mattoon and Hoge all argue far more people would go out and ride if they felt safer doing so.
Reese praised some of the efforts of the Bike Ped Committee and Bikes and Walks to push for change, but he also said the number of people interested in those groups decreased considerably as the process became more bureaucratic and made few tangible gains. Hoge and Mattoon both understand those difficulties, but they emphasized the need for more advocates to help them keep moving closer to completing the master plan.
“The more complete the network is then you’re going to see people out,” Hoge said. “That’s why you see everybody on the Greenway because it’s at least a network.”