Downtown Lexington's confusing pattern of one-way streets might soon be a thing of the past, as the city moves to implement one of Mayor Jim Gray's first promises upon taking office.
Gray, in his first major speech after taking office in January, pledged to work to get a two-way street plan implemented, saying city leaders had "jammered and jabbered about it" long enough.
On Thursday, Chris King, director of the Division of Planning, said, "We are accelerating the process."
Last week, the city advertised for consultants to submit detailed plans to convert the four pairs of one-way streets back to two-way traffic: Short and Second, Main and Vine, High and Maxwell, and Upper and Limestone.
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"We hope to get responders who have had actual experience in doing conversion, not just theoretical," King said. The city wants a traffic-simulation model showing where new traffic signals, left-turn lanes and loading zones would be needed. Consultants also are asked to include a cost estimate.
Respondents have three weeks to get proposals to the city. King expects a consultant to be selected by the first of the year.
The firm that gets the contract will be under pressure to present preliminary plans quickly. "We want them to move as fast as they possibly can," King said. "One of the things we will be discussing with responders when we interview them is, 'How fast can you get this stuff back?' "
But to be realistic, King said, the study will take time. "We don't expect a plan back in a month or two months. But one thing we will talk to responders about is, 'How fast do you think you can get us significant information?'"
The city also is putting a premium on creative ideas, he said.
The consulting contract for $450,000 will be paid for with federal and state funds.
Lexington's downtown streets were made one-way in the early 1970s. Traffic efficiency was the big reason. Suburbs were growing, and people wanted to get downtown quickly in the morning and home quickly in the evening.
Cars tend to go faster on one-way streets, especially when lanes are wide. That makes traffic noisier and more dangerous, especially for pedestrians, officials said.
"One-way streets hurt business," said Gary Bates, the Oslo, Norway, architect hired to come up with a master plan for an arts and entertainment district in downtown Lexington.
Studies show that two-way streets help businesses; make it easier to drive around, especially for people who aren't acquainted with an area; and create a more positive environment for pedestrians.
Converting streets back to two-way is a trend seen in other cities as downtowns are being revitalized, said Scott Shapiro, a senior member of Gray's staff.
At a recent conference of mayors, Gray presented some ideas being pursued in Lexington to revitalize downtown and mentioned two-way streets. "The mayors of Charleston, S.C., and Minneapolis both said, 'Just do it,'" Shapiro said.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told Gray, "15 minutes after you make the change, people will be asking why you didn't do it 25 years earlier," Shapiro said.
Lexington's downtown business owners, developers, bar and restaurant owners have lobbied hard for several years to convert the one-way streets to two-way, saying the conversion would help business.
Gay Reading, an owner of Greentree Antiques and Tea Room at 521 West Short Street, said converting Short and Second street from one-way to two-way would be a "huge boost" for his shop and other nearby businesses.
"It's a nightmare to give directions on the telephone. And it's a nightmare for people to follow them," Reading said. "Accessibility for our patrons would be tremendously increased by having two-way streets."