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Legislation which would allow for easier installation of protected bike lanes on state roads in Pennsylvania is closer than ever to becoming law. 

The legislation, Senate Bill 565, is needed by municipalities across the Commonwealth. Currently, PennDOT will not install parking-protected bike lanes in Pennsylvania because of their interpretation of the vehicle code that says motor vehicles need to park within 12 inches of the curb. The legislation we support is a short “technical fix” to the vehicle code which would save lives and money.

Introduced in early 2019, the legislation passed the House almost unanimously (200-1), has passed the Senate Transportation Committee, passed the Senate Appropriations Committee, was passed by the full Senate twice and now needs to pass the full Senate on a third and final vote. 

There’s just one problem.

A single senator is holding the bill up 

One state senator, John Sabatina (D-5) of Philadelphia, is single-handedly holding up the legislation. Sabatina drafted an amendment that would require an unspecified registered community organization (where the bike lane is to be installed) to provide a letter of approval for the bike lane, within 30 days of a community meeting.

This may sound OK, until you realize the legislation makes no sense.

We gained some insight into the senator’s concerns back in February, when he first introduced a version of this amendment: He claimed he didn’t understand the process for getting bike lanes installed in Philadelphia. So, it was explained to him and his staff. 

Then, he pulled his amendment from consideration in the Transportation Committee. But, he noted in committee, he wanted to work with the Bicycle Coalition and others to better understand the process and figure out a mutually-agreeable solution.

We then set up a meeting with his office, PennDOT, the City of Philadelphia, and others. Unfortunately, everyone showed up to that meeting except Sabatina’s staff. We didn’t hear anything more until this new amendment was introduced in late September.

Now, Sabatina is set on his amendment, and is, apparently, the only senator who wants this amendment. Unfortunately for people across the Commonwealth, he is able to utilize his power to stall the legislation from passing, thus exposing the growing population of people who ride bikes, walk, and drive, across Pennsylvania, to dangerous roads.

Given Democrats are the minority party, the Republicans decide which bills come up for a vote and which don’t. As far as we understand, Republicans will allow this legislation to come up (it’s been on the senate schedule at least twice for a final vote) as long as it passes clean and is uncontroversial. Sabatina’s amendment is controversial in that it would force a senate floor debate, and that’s not something that will be tolerated. This is, again, how we understand it.

Then there’s the RCO issue. Sabatina’s amendment gives RCOs more power, but in introducing the amendment, he did not reach out to any RCOs. 

It may be his intent to destroy the RCO process. We don’t really know.

At least 16 RCOs have already sent letters to Sabatina, and the Philadelphia delegation, asking him to pull the amendment because, among other things, they can’t afford it. Requiring RCOs to provide letters of approval would eventually result in increased liability insurance premiums, perhaps making insurance unaffordable for RCOs.  

Several RCOs have lost their insurance due to losses incurred when developers have sued them for not approving zoning variances.  Thus far, this argument hasn’t impacted the Senator’s position. 

Additionally, as the Fishtown Neighborhood Association wrote to Sen. Sabatina, several RCOs have overlapping jurisdiction, and his amendment does not detail which RCO gets decision-making power over the public space. 

The likelihood of the bill passing and allowing for better transportation options in the state of Pennsylvania is decreasing with each passing moment. There are only a few session days left this year.

Unfortunately, this is the sort of thing that’s too familiar in our political system. Legislators often believe they know more than their constituents and have a habit of keeping us all in the dark — even when presented with facts.

Sabatina may be getting calls from some of his own constituents about their problem with bicyclists, but the amendment he’s introduced wouldn’t just affect Northeast Philadelphia; it would affect the City as a whole and holding up the legislation affects the entire Commonwealth. Which is a problem.

This is needed now more than ever

As 2020 has progressed, traffic crashes in Philadelphia (and around the country) have increased exponentially. According to data provided by the Philadelphia Police Department, traffic fatalities are up nearly 50 percent in 2020 over 2019, in Philadelphia. 

Four people on bicycles have been killed on roads without protected bike lanes, and pedestrian deaths are up a whopping 68 percent over 2019. Parking-protected bike lanes, like those Sabatina is trying to kill, have been proven to make streets safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists

Not to mention bike lanes are not just for bikes. We call them bike lanes, but, increasingly, you see folks on scooters, motorized wheelchairs and even horses, in the bike lane. These lanes are meant to keep all of us safer from increasingly menacing motorists.

This attempt to seize control from the experts is, if nothing else, a wakeup call to folks in the City who perhaps believed their representatives had their best interests at heart, or, even understood their interests at all. In this case — and this can’t be emphasized enough — a sitting state senator is attempting to co-opt an established process, putting community organizations out of commission for reasons he overtly will not explain.

Nevertheless, whatever happens from here on (and we’re working hard with our contacts in Harrisburg to make sure this does pass this year) we are taking this to the end. If the 2020 legislative session ends and this legislation does not pass, it’s the first thing we will work on in 2021. 

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