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Aurora merchants oppose plans to replace parking with driving lane


November will be the last chance to comment on government proposals to to improve safety and traffic flow on Aurora Avenue N., otherwise known as State Route 99.

State, County and City transportation agencies have been studying the thoroughfare since last year. They are preparing to make their final recommendations for Aurora in December.

Aurora is not only prone to traffic jams, but the Washington State Department of Transportation also considers it the third worst accident corridor in the State in a ranking based on both the number and severity of accidents.

The agencies involved in the study have come up with several preliminary recommendations to improve safety and mobility - most controversial are plans to remove parking on the west side of the street between N. 110th and N. 72nd during evening commute periods, Monday through Friday. Parking in that area is already restricted during morning hours, but it could also be outlawed during the afternoon-and-early evening rush hours sometime next year to make way for a third driving lane.

To speed buses along, government agencies want to create a new bus and right-turn only lane southbound along Aurora from N. 145th to N. 110th Street in an area now used as a shoulder. The new general purpose lane proposed between N. 110th and N. 72nd streets could also be turned into a bus only lane at some point in the future if local transportation agencies see a need to do so.

To address safety, the agencies want to block left turns - either with signs or medians - at several locations between N. 110th and N. 145th streets.

"No left turn" signs have already been installed at 87th and 88th Streets, and spot median/sign treatments are also a possibility between N. 110th and N. 145th Street. Casper said if the signs don't work at N. 87th and N. 88th, medians could be installed there in less than a year. Medians for intersections above 110th Street could be as far as 10 years away. Some community groups have voiced support for the plans to improve traffic flow along Aurora Avenue.

"The neighborhoods along Aurora definitely appreciate improved bus service," said Michael McGinn, president of the Greenwood Community Council, which has been following the study. "(Aurora) is an environment that's hostile to pedestrians and people."

Paul Grindall, owner of the Aurora Flower Shop at 8808 Aurora Ave. N., acknowledges that something needs to be done to improve the present traffic situation. He said he has seen plenty of accidents outside his store over the years. He said he's glad the government has started small - putting in signs rather than a median at his intersection. "It was really refreshing to see them take an incremental approach," he said.

Mark Landreth, a manager at Aurora Loans at 12220 Aurora Ave. N., said he knows from first-hand experience how backed up traffic can get between N. 110th and N. 72nd during rush hour. He believes a third lane is needed. "In that area where those businesses are, (losing street parking is) the price you've got to pay," he said.

But the transportation agencies' proposals have many other Aurora merchants up in arms. "There is a war going on right now," said Faye Garneau, executive director of the Aurora Avenue Merchants Association. She said the association believes removing parking during after-and-evening commute hours could be a death-blow to the more than 100 businesses between N. 110th and N. 72nd, particularly restaurants.

"We're right on the edge right now," said Donna Hartshorn, owner of House of Pizza & Pasta restaurant at 9019 Aurora Ave. N. Even though her business has a parking lot, she said she relies on street parking during busy times.

Kevin Hendrickson, who owns Aurora Auto Center at 9200 Aurora Ave. N as well as several rental properties along the corridor, said he's been hurt by the mere proposal to remove parking.

"I have one person who decided not to renew their lease," Hendrickson said. He added that the addition of several new apartment buildings in the area has eliminated parking along side streets in recent years, thus increasing the need for street parking along Aurora.

Transportation planners say a recently conducted parking study indicated only an average 20-40 percent of the parking spaces in that area are being used at any given time.

The Merchants Association disputes the finds of the study with regards to the use of street parking along Aurora.

Therese Casper, a transportation planner with the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), acknowledged that some areas of Aurora use more street parking than others, however she still hopes solutions can be found such as businesses sharing each other's parking lots. "There is no more parking," said Dave Quiring, owner of Quiring Monuments at 9608 Aurora Ave. N. "There's no way to accommodate what (the agencies) are saying."

The Merchants Association has its own ideas on how to improve traffic flow, one of which opening up bus lanes to all drivers, said Garneau.

Another possible fix, she suggested, would be to install left-turn lights on all four sides of the intersection at Aurora and N. 90th Street.

Casper said SDOT is looking into the possibility of a left-turn signal at N. 90th, but added that both the expense and neighborhood concerns about directing traffic towards residential streets gives the City pause. She said while lights could improve safety at that intersection, SDOT believes they would do little to help drivers except for those turning left.

As far as SDOT is concerned, removing bus lanes increases gridlock, not the other way around. The only way to add capacity to Aurora, said Grace Crunican, head of SDOT, is to either tear down buildings to build lanes, or increase bus service.

Over 7,000 people ride the bus along the Aurora corridor every day. (By comparison, 40,000 trips are made by car.) Statistics show that the No. 358 bus, which mostly travels along Aurora Avenue, is already Metro Transit's fifth most used bus.

"There is the expectation that this is one of the corridors we can really grow," said Ellen Bevington, supervisor of capital planning for King County Metro.

The Merchants Association opposes plans to restrict left turns, saying it will inevitably drive traffic on to residential streets - or drive customers away from Aurora all together.

Garneau said any safety benefit there might be from restricting left turns would be far outweighed by the economic damage done to businesses along Aurora, which she describes as one of the city's highest grossing shopping areas. She's also not convinced that the number of accidents on Aurora is high in proportion to the roadway's heavy traffic volumes.

Garneau said the merchants are prepared to go to court to block the government's proposals from becoming a reality. At a recent Merchant's Association meeting, $20,000 was pledged to begin financing a legal battle. Half of that amount was pledged by Garneau's husband.

"We hope we don't have to go to litigation and we hope we don't have to go to civil disobedience," said Garneau. "But those options are on the table."

Other improvements:

On the Aurora bridge, transportation agencies are considering adding a center median and widening lanes. This would be accomplished by building new sidewalks under the bridge. That project is estimated to cost as much as $20 million and is at least 10 years away due to lack of funding.

There are also changes planned just north of the Aurora Bridge include widening the northbound car lanes from N. 38th to N. 50th and a southbound morning commute bus lane from N. 62nd to N. 38th. These measures would also require the removal of some parking.

In addition, more sidewalks, bus shelters, and lighting along Aurora are proposed.

There will be a final open house on the SR-99 Corridor study on Thursday, Oct. 24, from 5-8 p.m. at Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church. For details, call Renee Zimmerman at the Washington State Department of Transportation at 389-3095.