Pain in the Bike Lane

A compromise to widen A1A could kill

John McCurdy knew riding his bicycle down Delray Beach's scenic stretch of A1A could be treacherous. Sharing the road with cars meant he ran the risk of getting cursed out, being swerved at, becoming a target for beer cans, or enduring much worse. But on a sun-drenched late September morning last year, McCurdy just wanted to hop on his bike and find a nice spot on the beach to watch the sunrise. He silently recited prayers as he pedaled. Then, the 42-year-old mortgage consultant was struck from behind by a van. The driver left him for dead. With five broken ribs and a punctured lung, McCurdy dragged himself to the front door of a nearby oceanfront condominium, where the guard called 911.

Indeed, that stretch of A1A can be lethal. Since 1995, 17 bike/car crashes have resulted in serious injuries. In April 2004, a 15-year-old girl in a charity ride was hit and killed by a drunken driver on Lake Worth's narrow portion of A1A.

"It's a ridiculous situation," scoffs retiree Jim Smith, who lives in the building where McCurdy found refuge. He remembers that the bicyclist's back bore a huge bruise from where the van's side mirror struck him.

A proposed five-foot bike lane for Delray Beach's portion of A1A, in the works for years, could well have prevented McCurdy's accident. But the plan is in jeopardy, caught in a battle that has pitted millionaires in lavish beachfront homes against both recreational riders and outspoken, often downright-pushy bicyclists in spandex. The well-heeled advocates have spent tens of thousands of dollars to push their case, sending out mass mailings and even chartering a private plane to lobby in Tallahassee against the narrow strip of concrete.

Only thing is, the land in question doesn't even belong to the homeowners.

The State of Florida owns the land on both sides of AIA as public right of way. Property owners on the beach have been using this dormant public land for decades and, faced with the prospect of giving it back, decided to put up a fight.

"What it comes down to is, beach homeowners don't want to lose any of the right of way they've encroached on," sputters Albert Richwagen, who owns an eponymous bike shop on SE Second Avenue. "The beach homeowners in Delray are the wealthiest in town, and they run the city."

Florida regularly leads the nation in bike/car accidents, and Palm Beach County has consistently topped the state average. The state reported eight countywide bike fatalities in 2002, the last year available. To try to stem the flow, state standards call for bike paths to be constructed at a minimum width of five feet and pledges that "bicycle and pedestrian[s] shall be given full consideration" whenever state roads are repaved.

Since 1998, county planners have intended to widen and repave Palm Beach County's stretch of A1A and construct five-foot bike lanes on both sides of the highway. Delray Beach Mayor David Schmidt told state officials in early 2003 that his city's roads required "a designated bicycle lane, not just a paved shoulder," and asked that the Transportation Department "give the same consideration to pedestrians and cyclists as is given to motorized vehicles when Ocean Blvd. [A1A] is resurfaced."

This apparent commitment to big, wide, clearly marked bike lanes along the county's busy Atlantic Coast roadway made bike riders feel a tad safer. At least until Rick Edick, who lives in a 5,000-square-foot, $3 million oceanfront mansion not far from where McCurdy was hit, piped up. Edick's wife, Georgeanne Goldblum, is the daughter of Norman Goldblum, a councilman in Florida's wealthiest sea-front community, Palm Beach.

To Edick and his neighbors on the beach east of A1A in Delray, all it took was a look out the front window to see how much trouble these bike lanes would cause. Another ten feet of asphalt added to the highway meant the road would devour palm trees, tropical plants, mailboxes, driveways, walls, and gates. "Our feeling was A1A was not the best place for bike lanes," says Edick, who is an investor by trade and a shrewd negotiator.

Call it NIMFY -- Not in My Front Yard.

In June 2003, the city created a "consensus committee" to meet and iron out some agreement. Richwagen, a lifetime Delray resident, road-bike expert, and would-be peacemaker, was tapped to represent the moderate fringe of the cyclists. Edick, his wife, and other beach homeowners participated as well. "It got kind of ugly," explains Richwagen, adding that most of his battles were with Edick's wife. "I had to tell her to watch her mouth more than once."

Palm Beach urban planner Raphael Clemente attended the meetings too. "I had a homeowner tell me that if they build the bike lanes and I'm riding in one, I better watch over my shoulder," he recalls.

Last July, Edick formed a nonprofit corporation called Save Our Seacoast with neighbors Alex Campbell, Ina Bond, Martin Brown, and Stephen Bates. On October 28 -- one month after the accident that almost killed McCurdy -- Edick and other Save Our Seacoast members took a private jet to Tallahassee to meet with Florida Department of Transportation chief Jose Abreu. "Secretary Abreu was very gracious and listened to our concerns," Edick reports. Abreu's office confirms the meeting.

Save Our Seacoast also hired a conservative lobbying firm, Southern Strategy, to help spearhead a mass-mailing blitz. The company came up with a brochure that advocated leaving A1A essentially as it is. In early January 2004, full-color Save Our Seacoast fliers/petitions landed in 36,000 mailboxes in Delray Beach. Edick also had, according to his own fundraising letters, raised almost $50,000 to lobby against any changes to the road. Save Our Seacoast had a novel idea regarding the bike lanes. "None is better," said a report the group published that summer. "Leave AIA alone. Just repave it as-is. Not broken; don't fix it."

The city's new mayor, Jeff Perlman, who took office in March 2004, wasn't happy that Save Our Seacoast decided to take matters into its own hands. "We told them not to," he says. "I didn't like their tactics, and I didn't like their mailing." He jokes, "Instead of Save Our Seacoast, it should have been Save Our Keypads," referring to the electronic devices homeowners use to gain entry to gated driveways.

Soon, the city -- influenced by a study prepared by Southern Strategy and the moneyed voices of Edick and his neighbors -- had second thoughts about letting the state have its way with A1A. Delray leaders began talking with bicycle riders, beach homeowners, and businesses about a compromise. But hard-core cyclists wouldn't budge from the five-foot lane, and homeowners didn't want to surrender an inch of landscaping. "What's rotten about the anti-bike-lane lobby," urban planner Clemente says, "is they were able to paint the cycling community as a special-interest group of scofflaws who ride wherever they want, whenever they want."

Most people who ride the beach in Delray are just regular folks. But some die-hard bikers are a little more aggressive. "Personally, I don't require a bike lane," says cyclist and self-described "wayward songwriter" Mike Tague, who says he has no trouble keeping up with traffic. But Tague insists that clearly designated lanes will make biking safer for kids and families. In his nine years of biking in Palm Beach County, "I've had bottles, quarters, and fish thrown at me," Tague reports. "They'll still scream obscenities at me, bike lane or not."

Edick admits he's not pleased by the packs of cyclists who speed twice weekly past the walls of his property. "But the reality is, it's only a relatively small number of people" who use A1A for bike riding, he insists.

Negotiations dragged on for months and were often heated. Mayor Perlman recalls: "At one point, they were arguing over six inches," he says. The issue has all but dominated his first year as mayor. "Not why I wanted to be in office," he admits, adding that he never imagined five feet of grass and trees could constitute such a contentious issue.

By March 2004, Delray Beach adopted the "consensus plan" that called for three-foot shoulders. Richwagen immediately came under attack. "The bike riders accused me of accepting bribes," the bike-store owner says.

On June 16, the Palm Beach County Metropolitan Planning Office OK'd the plan and sent it to the state for approval. "It's in their hands," Perlman says, "and it's their road." But Tague and another cyclist have asked the Florida Attorney General's Office to determine whether the consensus committee meeting violated the state Sunshine Law, which requires public notice of government activity. "I've elected to pursue this thing," Tague says. "It seemed like something fishy was going on."

Both the Palm Beach Postand the Sun-Sentinelhave derided the compromise.

In the meantime, back in his office off Southern Boulevard, Clemente sits at a desk that is stacked with paperwork and recommendations regarding the importance of bike lanes on busy urban streets. "A state statute has been brushed under the rug for the benefit of wealthy beachfront property owners," he mopes. "They've placed landscaping over lives.

"I'm just trying to find out," he says, "how did we lose?"

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