OC Cities to Compete for Millions in New Bike Infrastructure Funding

Cyclist in Downtown Santa Ana
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As local transportation officials ramp up bike safety efforts amidst a rising toll of biking deaths, they’re encouraging cities to apply for millions of dollars in new state grants to fuel construction of more bike and pedestrian projects.

About $180 million in Active Transportation Program or ATP funding is available statewide through a grant process, with another $13 million set aside for Orange County.

Applications are due in about a month on May 21.

At the same time, Orange County Transportation Authority officials are trying to get the message out that biking isn’t just for recreation.

“We’re trying to change the mindset,” Director Todd Spitzer said at a Monday meeting of the Regional Planning and Highways Committee.

Reacting to a new OCTA video ad that focuses its visuals on recreational biking, Spitzer asked that the agency start incorporating more images of people biking to work.

“People are using this as a different modality,” said Spitzer, who is also a county supervisor.

He asked whether OCTA has statistics on how many people bike for recreation versus commuting, to which CEO Darrell Johnson said he wasn’t sure.

Commuting by bike is already happening, officials said, with improvements needed to make it more feasible for the local workforce.

OCTA Chairman Shawn Nelson noted that the Santa Ana River Trail runs near several large employers, including Disney and Cal State Fullerton.

“For a lot of these urban central trails, you sort of build a hub for all the spokes to go to,” said Nelson, noting that gaps still need to be filled in order for cyclists to travel to and from the trail.

Another emphasis at Monday’s meeting was on making sure children have a safe way of traveling to school on foot or by bicycle.

Director Al Murray, who is also the mayor of Tustin, noted a high number of accidents involving children and asked OCTA staff to reach out to school districts on boosting safety.

A national advocacy group also called on OCTA to lead a planning effort around that very issue.

“My suggestion would be to consider the development of a regional safe routes to school plan,” Rye Baerg of the Safe Routes to School National Partnership told board members.

Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Imperial and Ventura counties have all agreed to develop such plans, with San Diego being fairly far along in the process, he added.

Vice Chairman Jeff Lalloway also urged his colleagues to expand their bike safety education to car drivers.

“If there’s ever going to be a fight between a cyclist … and a car, the cyclist is going to lose that fight every time,” said Lalloway, noting that a new, three-foot separation law goes into effect in September.

OCTA staff said they plan to work with the American Automobile Association and possibly the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles about educating motorists.

It also emerged during Monday’s meeting that OCTA and many local cities have yet to conduct counts of current bicycle use on many popular routes.

Director Lori Donchak, noting that measurements are key to effective management, asked whether cities are doing anything to show they’re increasing bike use.

OCTA Planning Manager Charlie Larson, meanwhile, explained that the Active Transportation Program will require pedestrian and bicycle counts for the projects it funds.

Other jurisdictions, such as New York City, conduct bicycle counts at key locations to gauge usage and inform policy planning.

That city’s bike share program also provides raw data files showing the starting and ending stations and duration of each trip among other infomation across the entire system.

OCTA is also hiring an active transportation coordinator, who would serve as cities’ single point of contact for bike and pedestrian projects.

The coordinator is expected to be hired sometime in June.

As for targeting safety efforts, Lalloway pointed to Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Ana as two areas with some of the most biking deaths and accidents in Orange County.

Many residents ride their bikes through Santa Ana around 4 and 5 a.m. without lights, noted Spitzer.

He suggested that OCTA help local Santa Ana groups that are handing out bike safety equipment to apply for grants.

Board members also approved an approach for figuring out which Orange County bike and pedestrian projects to prioritize for the ATP grants.

Projects in the agency’s regional bikeways plan, the 2014 Bicycle Corridor Improvement Program, will now be given higher priority when it comes to the new grant funding.

Projects would also gain additional points for being included in the countywide Commuter Bikeway Strategic Plan, District Bikeway Strategies and OCTA Nonmotorized Metrolink Accessibility Strategy.

The increased focus on active transportation comes amid a growing effort nationwide to make communities more bike- and pedestrian-friendly.

Advocates say such environments help boost health, public safety and economic development, along with reducing pollution and fostering more enjoyable areas to spend time.

OCTA’s push in that direction is now being lead by several board members, particularly Nelson, Lalloway and Spitzer.

Project applications for the state’s new ATP program are due by May 21, with another series of steps before final project approvals in November.

Please contact Nick Gerda directly at ngerda@gmail.com  and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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