Franklin and Washington avenues could be converted back to two-way traffic without significantly increasing wait times at traffic lights, city traffic officials said at a public meeting Thursday.
More than 50 people showed up at the Central Library to look at the latest proposals for the two-way conversion, and most in attendance appeared to support the idea.
Traffic studies, maps and renderings showed several possible designs for both four-lane roadways between Fourth and 18th streets, part of an effort to make them safer and friendlier to pedestrians and retail.
“We see this as an economic development issue,” city traffic engineer Eric Gallt said.
Other changes could include a new protected two-way bike lane along Washington and the removal of Franklin Avenue traffic lights at Seventh and Ninth streets.
Gallt said both Franklin and Washington have surplus capacity now. All the options would preserve adequate traffic flow even if downtown traffic increases in the next decade by about 20 percent, the study shows.
Assuming that new “smart” traffic lights are installed, most intersections would have average wait times of less than 10 seconds, and all would have waits of less than 20 seconds, the study shows. Wait times would be about the same if the roads remain one-way, officials said.
The city has been weighing the conversion for several years, and the urgency has increased as the city has gotten more serious about seeking federal funds for a “bus rapid transit” system. The crosstown express bus line would likely run down Franklin Avenue, with fixed stations tying in along the way, and two-way traffic would be a requirement for it to work.
Gallt said the conversion would cost about $2 million, including striping and new traffic lights that would respond to traffic demand. No funding has been identified for the project so far.
City Center Waco found strong support for the Washington and Franklin conversions at a public meeting in 2016.
City Center Waco Executive Director Megan Henderson said the city has done its homework since then and clarified the design possibilities.
“One of the things introduced here is the idea that Washington and Franklin could be treated radically differently,” Henderson said.
The proposals show center turn lanes on Franklin Avenue, with one or two lanes heading east toward the river and one heading west. On-street parking would be preserved along the corridor, but no bike lanes are recommended.
Washington Avenue, which has less than half the traffic load of Franklin, could have one lane in each direction, along with parking along the street. On one side, between the parked cars and sidewalk, the city could built a small median that would mark off a protected two-way bike lane.
That idea won the enthusiastic support of one cyclist who attended Thursday.
“Protected bike lanes are important for people who don’t ride a lot,” bike advocate Stuart Smith said. “We’re seeing it a lot in cities that are trying to promote cycling.”
Business owners along Washington and Franklin showed up to support the conversion.
“I think this will help make us pedestrian-friendly, bike-friendly and commercial-friendly,” said Cory Duncan, who with his wife, Kate, co-owns Wildland Supply Co. at 721 Washington Ave., along with surrounding buildings.
Duncan said Austin Avenue is the only pedestrian-oriented shopping street in downtown, thanks to decisions made in the mid-20th century to make Franklin and Washington cross-town corridors. He said it’s time to rethink that idea.
“I don’t think we can just focus on one street,” he said.
Other business owners said the change will make it easier for people to find their business, and keep potential customers from speeding past without noticing them.
“We are for the change,” said Kelly Galanis, owner of 1424 Bistro at 14th Street and Washington Avenue. “We believe it will slow down traffic. Also, I think Washington is a little confusing for people.”
Her daughter, Dorothy Lentis, owner of Alpha Omega Mediterranean Grill & Bakery at 929 Franklin Ave., said the conversion would improve accessibility and safety. She said she routinely sees people driving the wrong way and getting into wrecks.
“We’ve had to use our fire extinguisher on wrecks,” Lentis said.
David Lacy, a downtown office landlord and banker, reiterated his past support for keeping the streets one-way, especially Franklin Avenue.
“Franklin is a major traffic artery, and it needs to stay that way,” Lacy said. “That’s because we have to get people to downtown. We have made great progress getting people to live downtown, but the majority of people don’t live there. How do they get downtown?”
He acknowledged that the one-way streets can feel forbidding to pedestrians, and traffic needs to be slowed. He also would like to see Ninth Street returned to two-way.
“I’m not for the status quo,” he said. “Anyone who makes an argument for the status quo makes a mistake.”