Mayor Elorza, City Council in standoff over bike lanes

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has vetoed a City Council resolution that calls for comprehensive studies on all proposed bike lanes, arguing that it “sends the wrong message about bicycle and pedestrian safety” in Rhode Island’s capital city.

The council voted 9-5 last week to approve a nonbinding resolution asking the city to conduct “full traffic impact and economic impact studies prior to deciding whether to construct new bicycle lanes.” A group of councilors argued that city leaders should consider the needs of certain neighborhoods before moving forward with more bike lanes.

“We support complete streets here in our city, meaning that our infrastructure is designed and operated for safe access for all users, of all abilities,” Elorza, an avid biker, said in a statement. “We will continue to engage the community in these decisions and we remain committed to working with the council members to address any concerns they have heard from constituents.”

Acting City Council President Sabina Matos (Ward 15) said Friday the council will attempt to override the mayor’s veto. An override requires 10 votes of the council.

The resolution was introduced by Ward 10 Councilman Luis Aponte, who said he has received complaints from small business owners who were unaware bike lanes were being added in parts of South Providence, including Broad Street.

“What the resolution asks to do is simply call on government to do its due diligence,” Aponte said during a 40-minute floor discussion at last week’s council meeting. He added that city officials need to “understand conditions on the ground” before making changes to city streets.

In the veto letter, Elorza said he has assured small business owners they will not lose public parking spaces as a result of the new bike lanes.

Ward 11 Councilwoman Mary Kay Harris, who also represents part of the South Side, supported the resolution because people around Broad Street “haven’t been given an opportunity to choose yes and no.”

“As a city, we’ve got to be careful that we don’t dismiss the concerns,” Harris said during the meeting.

The resolution was opposed by all three of the city’s East Side councilors: Seth Yurdin from Ward 1, Sam Zurier from Ward 2 and Nirva LaFortune from Ward 3. Councilman David Salvatore from Ward 14 and Majority Leader Bryan Principe (Ward 13) also voted against the proposal.

Yurdin said the city has worked to increase pedestrian bike access and requiring more studies would be burdensome. He said the proposal  was “nothing but a hoop or a barrier designed to make it harder” to install bike lanes.

“The problem with that is its really costly and it doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

Elorza has only issued one other veto since taking office in 2015: an ordinance prohibiting the use of tobacco prohibits in part of downtown. The City Council voted to override the veto earlier this year.

Since resolutions are generally symbolic, the mayor typically allows ones he opposes to move forward without his signature. The last time a mayor vetoed a resolution was 2008, when David Cicilline formally opposed the council’s attempt to rescind the transfer of the former American Tourister site on Houghton Street to the Providence Redevelopment Agency. The City Council overrode the veto, but the transfer was never rescinded.

But Elorza’s aides see the veto as a signal of the mayor’s priorities, which include building a more bike-friendly city. The administration is currently laying the groundwork for its proposed City Walk project, a multi-phase plan to connect the neighborhoods around Roger Williams Park on the South Side to downtown and India Point Park on the East Side by adding more bike and pedestrian infrastructure improvements.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan