For an advocate of bicycling, attending the final hearing on a hike and bike master plan for Arlington, Texas, was like traveling to a parellel universe.
“I see tyranny in Arlington!” bellowed one opponent, with rhetorical flourishes reminiscent of Patrick Henry’s 1775 “Give me liberty, or give me death” speech. Describing himself as a veteran and former police officer, the man accused the Arlington City Council of violating residents’ “civil and constitutional rights” by pushing the bike plan “down our throats.”
A woman opponent suggested that the plan for bike lanes was a sinister United Nations plan “to force people to ride bicycles.” Another woman accused “our Republican mayor,” Robert Cluck, of “signing on to socialist agendas.”
A silver-haired man described bicycling as a “hobby,” dismissing its use as an alternative means of transportation. “Don’t ask me as a taxpayer to spend millions of dollars for somebody’s hobby,” he said.
Arlington, by the way, is a city of about 375,000 between Fort Worth and Dallas. It’s home to the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, the Texas Rangers baseball team, Six Flags Over Texas amusement park and a large campus of the University of Texas. But it has the dubious distinction of being the largest city in the United States without public transportation. Each time a public transportation initiation was put on the ballot, it was voted down, led by the critics who argued that buses would cause congestion and bring unsavory characters to Arlington.
More than 300 people attended the 2 1/2-hour public hearing and City Council vote on the proposed Hike and Bike System Master Plan. At a cost of about $55.3 million over three to four decades, the plan calls for building a 125-mile network of on-street and off-street bike facilities, as well as 149 miles of sidewalks to help residents get from neighborhoods to city parks, schools and other destinations.
Judging from cards and lists signed in the lobby outside the council chamber, 182 people attended the meeting in support of the plan and 133 people in opposition. Allowed two minutes each to voice their opinions, 43 people spoke in favor and 27 against. Many attendees who favored the plan wore yellow T-shirts with messages of support paid for by Acme Bike Co. and other local businesses. The shirts were distributed outside City Hall.
Among those who spoke in favor were representatives of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Arlington Management Corp., the University of Texas at Arlington, the Arlington Convention and Visitors Bureau and Dan Dipert, an Arlington businessman who for 40 years has operated a fleet of charter tour buses that bear his name.
Describing himself as a “Razorback through and through,” he told of a recent visit to his native Arkansas to see his mother in Conway. Home to the University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix College and Central Baptist College, Conway has bicycle lanes.
“If those hillybilly, redneck yahoos can have bike lanes,” Dipert asked, “why can’t we?”
The speaker who attracted the most attention was Jodi Lee Ryan, who bicycles despite her multiple sclerosis. She came with her service dog, Cinder, to urge the council to support the plan.
“My bicycle is my life line to the world,” she said. “It doubles as a wheelchair when I want to do errands close to home. It is my recreation. Many of my disabled friends ride. We want bicycle lanes.”
As the council prepared to vote, a motion to kill the hike and bike plan was offered by Councilman Mel LeBlanc. “The city of the future is not the city that puts bike paths in,” LeBlanc said. “It’s the city … that has a very low tax rate and a very low debt ratio. The city of the future is the city you can move to and not be robbed by taxes.” LeBlanc’s motion was defeated.
Robert Shepard, who offered a motion to approve the plan, responded emotionally to critics in the audience who claimed that the hike and bike plan was railroaded through without input from Arlington residents.
He said that the plan was the subject of several public hearings during the two years that it was being developed, that the city contacted neighborhood associations for opinions on the plan and sent out multiple e-mails and placed newspaper ads about the hearings. The plan being voted on, he noted, was itself a compromise in response to critics.
The final plan, called “Option C,” he said, was scaled back significantly from the original “Option A,” an $88 million proposal that called for 281 miles of on-street and off-street hike and bike paths.
“Any notion that this was shoved down anyone’s throat is frankly offensive to me,” Shepard said.
In the end, the council voted 5-4 in favor of the plan, with council members LeBlanc, Robert Rivera, Gene Patrick and Mayor Cluck voting against it.
It was somewhat ironic that Cluck voted against it. Several who spoke against the plan had accused Cluck of embracing it. And a newsletter handed out by the opposition group Save Our Streets, criticized the mayor for his “extreme green agenda which includes, among other things, a belief that Arlington streets need to evolve toward a future where everyone rides a bicycle and only the fortunate few enjoy the advantages of motorized transporation.”
As I said, some of these folks live in a parallel universe.