7-Line protected bicycle lane: Bicentennial bond backgrounder

The 7-Line is a planned protected bicycle lane running east-west across downtown Bloomington towards the Indiana University campus.

It gets the numeric part of its name from 7th Street, where the 11-foot wide, two-way path will be constructed along the south side of the roadway, sometime in 2021. The non-numeric part of its name is patterned on the B-Line Trail, the north-south multi-use path along the former CSX railroad route that stretches 3.1 miles from Adams Street to Country Club Drive.

The 7-Line will connect to the B-Line just east of Madison Street.

The project has received increased exposure in the last week, as final design details are worked out.

Last Thursday (June 18), the project was introduced in more detail to the public. On Wednesday this week, the traffic commission was asked to weigh in on the changes to city code that are required for the removal of 113 metered parking spaces and the elimination of east-west stop signs at most of the cross streets.

This Thursday (June 25) the parking commission is getting its second look at the project, after discussing it at a work session earlier in the month.

The now-estimated $2 million construction cost will be paid for with parks bonds, which the city council and the board of park commissioners approved in late 2018, over a year and a half ago.

The three series of bonds, totaling $10.27 million were promoted by Bloomington mayor John Hamilton as “bicentennial bonds,” and pitched to the council as “a gift to the future, honoring Bloomington’s two hundred year anniversary.”

The city council’s approval of bicentennial bond package came on three separate votes, two of which got the minimum five votes needed on the nine-member city legislature. One councilmember was absent (Allison Chopra), which meant that if any four councilmembers had dissented on a vote, it would have failed.

The voting tallies at the October 2018 council meeting, which fell on Halloween, were 5–3, 5–3, and 7–1.

Based on council deliberations, the slenderness of the majorities for two of the votes did not reflect any acute dissatisfaction with the projects proposed to be funded with bonds.

Instead, some councilmembers were bothered by the fact that there were not any infrastructure projects being proposed that directly supported affordable housing or social services. For example, councilmember Steve Volan got confirmation during the deliberations that the city could use bonding to finance another Crawford Homes project.

In his remarks to the council, Hamilton said, “Our commitment together to raising the quality of life for all Bloomingtonians is strong and steady. This Bicentennial Bond is not an alternative to that commitment. Not an either-or.” Councilmembers Dave Rollo and then-councilmember Andy Ruff agreed with the mayor’s position.

But during deliberations, councilmember Steve Volan responded to the mayor’s remarks with an explicit mention of the “either-or” claim. Volan rejected the idea that he was somehow taking an “either-or” position: “I don’t think that it’s a matter of either-or. It’s just that there’s not a plan being presented for the ‘or’. It’s just the ‘either’.”

Volan asked, “Where is the plan for a token amount, another $3-million bond, that would build a building somewhere, that would add the social leg to the economic development leg and the environmental leg that the administration has proposed?”

The 7-Line project was one of the two bond projects that Volan said he supported—the other was the planting of trees. In the series of three bond proposals, the 7-Line was grouped with the RCA/Power Line trail project, about which Volan said he was “iffy.” He wound up supporting that pair of projects.

Here’s how the projects were bundled, with a breakdown of the vote tallies:

Series A: $3,435,000
Dissenting: Sims, Granger, Piedmont-Smith
(i) improvements along 7th Street Greenway, including bike lanes, a greenway trail, multi-use paths from the B-Line Trail to Woodlawn, and Union to the State Road 45/46 Bypass ($1,800,000)
(ii) trails and land acquisition for easements along the RCA/Power Line trail ($1,400,000)

Series B: $3,865,000
Dissenting: Volan, Granger, Piedmont-Smith
(i) trails at Griffy Lake ($1,500,000)
(ii) a trail from Clubhouse Drive to College Avenue at Cascades Park ($2,100,000)

Series C: $2,965,000
Dissenting: Volan
(i) entryway beautification, tree planting, landscaping and related improvements at the entryways to the City ($1,500,000)
(ii) the replacement of trees along City roadways ($800,000)
(iii) alley enhancements and rebuilding ($450,000)

The way the projects were bundled was a point of friction for councilmember Isabel Piedmont-Smith, who also described some of them as “icing on the cake” as opposed to essential. While the 7-Line project offered the chance to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the RCA RCA/Power Line rail seemed more like a “nice to have,” she said.

Piedmont-Smith wanted to know why the city council had not been consulted about how the projects were bundled together.

And during her exchange with city controller Jeff Underwood, she drew out part of the administration’s motivation for dividing the bonds into three series, instead of making a single issuance of $10.27 million in bonds. Underwood told Piedmont-Smith it was a consideration that a bond issuance over $5 million could be subject to a remonstration process, but he did not think there would be a remonstration.

The background to the exchange between Underwood and Piedmont-Smith is that the $5-million statutory limit on controlled projects can’t be circumvented by arbitrarily dividing a project into smaller bits, just to avoid the cap that allows for remonstration. The statute reads: “A political subdivision may not divide a controlled project in order to avoid the requirements of this section and section 3.5 of this chapter.”

The bicentennial bond projects look like they can stand on their own and don’t violate the prohibition against dividing a project into parts that “cannot reasonably be considered an independently desirable end in itself without reference to another capital project.”

Here’s the exchange between Piedmont-Smith and Underwood:

CM Piedmont-Smith: Earlier you mentioned something about if a bond is over $5 million, there is a remonstrance process?
Underwood: There’s a public remonstrance period, yes, process, as well.
CM Piedmont-Smith: So was that one of the considerations for making them less than $5 million?
Underwood: Yes, that was one of the considerations.
CM Piedmont-Smith: Interesting. So, was there a concern about a possible remonstrance, if you were to bundle these differently or all together?
Underwood: No, there was not.
CM Piedmont-Smith: There was not a concern that there would be a remonstrance, and yet the possibility of remonstrance was factored into your decision to break them up?
Underwood: Yes. It also allows for these to be discussed in series rather than combined. Based on some of the comments we’ve heard tonight, is that some of these you support and some you don’t. If we’d bundled all these together, you’d have less flexibility in the discussion and the approval of those. So that was the main concern in talking to the parks board…and bringing them forward to you. If you’ll remember we did the same series process with our last general fund debts. It gave you more flexibility, as well as the bodies that approved them, to discuss moving those forward. So flexibility was the main thing.
CM Piedmont-Smith: Did your office or the administration ever consider consulting with the council as to how to break these up into three?
Underwood: It was discussed with the administration, yes.
CM Piedmont-Smith: But did you ever think to reach out to the city council?
Underwood: I personally, no, I mean, I work for the mayor, and those decisions are made in the mayor’s office…

Councilmember Jim Sims voted against the first series of bonds, which included the 7-Line project, but for the second series, which included the trail at Griffy Lake. He said he saw the Griffy Lake trail as a higher priority.

Generally, Sims said he was cautious about taking on debt. “We’re asking our citizens to increase their tax bill…. Debt is debt and it’s got to be paid.”

The completion of a trail that would completely circumnavigate Griffy Lake was something councilmember Dave Rollo said he supported, on ecological grounds. People walk around the lake anyway, he said. “And they do a lot of ecological damage by walking through the forest,” Rollo said.

Then-councilmember Andy Ruff said he supported the 7-Line project, although he didn’t necessarily like the idea of spending money to encourage people to ride their bicycles in the street. “My biggest issue is… I just have a hard time sometimes thinking we need to spend a lot of money to get people to ride their bikes on the street, because I’ve done it since I was a small boy.”

But Ruff supported the 7-Line bond series, he said, because, “I believe the folks who study transportation, who say, no, there is a huge pent-up demand of people that just don’t and will not feel safe riding around in traffic just because some other people…”

The bicentennial bonds are all parks bonds. How does a protected bicycle lane fit into the parks equation?

Responding this week to a question from The Square Beacon, city attorney Mike Rouker said, “Even though 7th Street is public right of way under the supervision and control of the Board of Public Works, there is nothing that prevents the City from using revenue from parks bonds for a recreational facility (like a bicycle lane) that is located within the right of way.”

The parking commission will consider making a recommendation on the 7-Line project at its Thursday meeting, which starts at 5:30 p.m. The meeting information packet is posted online.