By JOY BROWN
Meetings to gather input on a downtown traffic plan that proposes major changes to parts of Main and Cory streets will be held March 12 at the Findlay Inn and Conference Center.
The proposal would reduce the number of driving lanes from four lanes to two on portions of Main Street downtown. The lost driving lanes would become diagonal parking spaces, which cars would back into.
In addition, a bicycle lane is being proposed for portions of Cory Street.
A cost estimate for the plan hasn’t yet been determined.
The March 12 meetings will be hosted by the Findlay-Hancock County Alliance, which teamed with city government and business leaders to develop the plan.
The meetings will target specific groups. The first will be held at 7:30 a.m. that day to receive feedback from business leaders, the second will be held at noon with the Findlay Young Professionals, and the third at 4:30 p.m. for the general public, said Tim Mayle, Alliance assistant economic development director.
Fire Department officials have said the new traffic scenario would cause changes in the routes used by firefighters during certain times of the day, and that a “roundtable” discussion will be held between the Fire Department and Hanco Ambulance representatives sometime after the March 12 meetings.
The plan has thus far been relayed to the public in pieces, with different components introduced at different public meetings. But those who helped with its development, including business and government leaders, outlined their ideas to Courier representatives on Thursday.
The plan is different from past ideas in that it’s receiving a significant boost of money and collaboration from downtown investors, particularly Marathon Petroleum Corp., which intends to add to its complex by building two office buildings and two multi-level parking garages.
Mayle described those building plans as “catalytic projects.”
The city will use Marathon’s construction plans, and traffic data from the past five years, as leverage to seek a grant for a state Department of Transportation study called a “transportation alternatives plan.”
Grant money and other funding could pay for as much as 80 percent of the estimated $2 million cost of the “transportation alternatives plan,” Service-Safety Director Paul Schmelzer said.
The grant application deadline is May 1, Schmelzer said.
The community has until that time to relay its opinions about the proposed plan to City Council.
Plan details are:
• On Main Street from just south of the Blanchard River to Front Street, parallel parking would continue and there would be two lanes of traffic in both directions.
• From Front to Main Cross streets, driving lanes would be reduced to one in each direction. “Reverse-angled parking,” where motorists back into angled parking spots, would be added. Some parallel parking spots would stay on the northwestern corner of the intersection with Main Cross Street to accommodate vehicular left turns north onto Main Street.
• From Main Cross to Crawford streets would be a similar parking and traffic lane arrangement.
• From Crawford to Sandusky streets, parallel parking would be maintained, as would two lanes in both directions to help prevent bottlenecks.
• From Sandusky to Hardin streets, reverse angled parking would resume, as would one lane in each direction.
• From Hardin to Lima streets would be a “transition area” that might involve some signals to prepare traffic heading north for the changes at other blocks, Mayle said. “There would be nothing of major substance that the average driver would notice,” he said.
• Mid-block pedestrian crossings in the blocks between Front and Main Cross streets, Main Cross and Crawford streets, and Sandusky and Hardin streets have been suggested, “although the jury is still out” on them, Schmelzer said.
• Main Street median buffers are being proposed between the river and Hardin Street. They could include vegetation, although plans haven’t been discussed at length.
• Curb bump-outs would be sprinkled along Main Street to lessen street-crossing distances and help protect pedestrians.
• Trees now planted along sidewalks would be relocated and nestled into their own islands by parking spaces, so they don’t impede pedestrian traffic.
A bicycle lane is proposed on Cory Street from West Main Cross Street going north. It would go either to an existing bike trail near High Street or all the way to the University of Findlay.
Schmelzer said the city would like to tie in these improvements with those that the Hancock Park District is developing for existing bike trails in the city and county.
The alley and street alterations that Marathon has in mind for the $80 million expansion of its complex would not be included in the city’s traffic plan, but wouldn’t interfere, Schmelzer said.
Marathon has asked the city to vacate Beech Avenue from East Lincoln to East Sandusky streets, Hardin Street from South Main to East streets, and the north/south alley that runs behind the former Elks building from East Lincoln to East Hardin Streets.
“Current plans are to keep Hardin and Beech open as driveways through the campus, to support operations of the campus, facilitate the needs of our employees, and to support visitor traffic into the campus,” said Stefanie Griffith, a public affairs officer for Marathon.
“The alley located behind the former Elks will be closed, in part to facilitate the construction of the green space being planned. However, the southern portion of the alley will likely remain open to support operation/service to the potential hotel site,” said Griffith.
The company has not finalized plans for structural changes to the streets, Griffith said.
Criticism of the reverse-angled parking idea has not gone unnoticed by officials, but they contend that studies suggest the arrangement increases safety.
Schmelzer said after Pottsville, Pa., installed such parking, it saw a 25 percent reduction in accidents. He also pointed out the Police Department has had reverse-angled parking on South Cory Street for years because of its safety and efficiency.
Reverse-angled parking means that vehicle trunks are accessed at the sidewalk instead of near moving traffic; that vehicle doors open toward the street, which serves as a shield; and that driving out is easy, since the vehicle’s nose is pointed toward traffic.
Plus, it’s a space- and cost-saver, officials say. Mayle said Main Street now has 103 parking spaces.
Reverse-angled parking would add up to 80 more. Schmelzer said to provide that many additional spaces in another way, such as a parking lot or garage, would cost up to $800,000.
For a better understanding of how reverse-angled parking works, Mayle suggested watching a YouTube video highlighting Wheat Ridge, Colo.
Schmelzer said the downtown traffic proposals were spurred by “data-driven” information rather than “perception.” He said the proposals would enhance safety.
Traffic pattern behavior was measured and modeled, and compared to standardized civil engineering information that focuses on factors such as speed and time spent sitting at lights, he said.
Statistics gathered from 2009 through 2012 show the Main Street intersections at Sandusky and Main Cross streets had higher numbers of crashes than any other intersections in the Ohio Department of Transportation’s District 1, which encompasses eight counties, Schmelzer said.
“And that’s just reported data. I’ve seen multiple close calls,” he said.
The typical traffic speed and Main Street’s considerable width make for a not-so-safe combination, said Councilman-At-Large Grant Russel, a Marathon employee.
As a pedestrian, “you’re just exposed” to downtown traffic hazards, he said.
The proposals are also taking into account future increases in downtown vehicle and pedestrian traffic caused by Marathon’s expansion, the new performing arts center, and other developments that those changes could attract.
The plan “would change (traffic) behavior patterns without having a level of service problem” that would worsen safety factors, Schmelzer said. “Functionally, I think we have a good project.”
The state, if it launches a “transportation alternatives plan,” may suggest alterations along the way.
Officials said other proposals could eventually be addressed, too, such as improvements to alleys that run parallel to Main Street.
Leaders have corresponded with the state Department of Transportation along the way, and the state seems to view the proposals favorably so far, Schmelzer said.
If City Council agrees to apply for the state grant, it will know by this fall whether it has been approved.
Russel said because he is a Marathon employee, he’ll abstain from voting on any street and alley vacation requests made by his employer. Russel said he will vote on items pertaining to other downtown traffic proposals.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a corrected version of this story.