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City: Long term plans for Center Street bike lane ‘unlikely’ to proceed


Downtown Reno’s cycle track, planned and approved for Center Street as the safest location for bike traffic downtown, went from to the favored choice by government boards to now having “fatal flaws.” The project is on indefinite hold. The City of Reno says it’s unlikely it will ever be built.

This report reveals what happened.

Micromobility construction in downtown Reno. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno, May 2022.
Micromobility construction in downtown Reno. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno, May 2022.

About this report

This Is Reno was contacted by a reader last year who expressed concerns with what they said were misleading and false narratives being advanced by local government officials. Their issue: A long-planned, and approved, Center Street cycle track had been unilaterally put on indefinite hold, to the surprise of bike advocates, in favor of shifting cycling options a block to the west – on Virginia Street.

They further alleged that the change was pushed by downtown casinos, and officials with the City of Reno and the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission were kowtowing to big gaming whims.

RTC officials said, however, data and public input gathered for its regional transportation plan supported the shift. But contrary to RTC’s claims, little public support was revealed showing people wanting the bicycle amenities moved from Center to Virginia Street. The opposite was found in public documents.

Through extensive research, including combing through hundreds of public records, This Is Reno found that while the issue is more complex and nuanced than originally alleged, the rationale behind installing a micro-mobility test project on Virginia Street, while the Center Street project remains on indefinite hold, remains murky. Recent official statements do not exactly support one another.

Plans for a Center Street cycle track — plans that originated as far back as 2015 — are unlikely to proceed. That’s according to Reno City Manager Doug Thornley.

“I think it’s unlikely and we’re actively exploring other, more feasible possibilities,” Thornley confirmed on Friday to This Is Reno.

The project began when the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission “identified Center Street … to be the preferred bicycle corridor due to lower traffic volumes, wider right of way, and year-round open operations,” according to the RTC’s former planning director. 

Nearly $100,000 was approved by the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission in 2019 for the project then called a “high priority” alternative. It was among three potential locations considered for improving bicycle amenities downtown and connectivity between midtown and the university.

The amount was increased in 2020, not to exceed a total of $3 million, for further analysis of both Center and Sierra streets. A draft traffic analysis remains on the RTC’s website showing Center Street is the preferred location for a cycle track.

But the project has been on hold after reaching the 30% design phase in January of 2021. People familiar with the project said it is abnormal for such plans, developed with years of public input and consultant reports, to be put on pause indefinitely.

They also said the reasons provided publicly by Reno and RTC officials are false and misleading. Characterizing the Center Street cycle track as problematic came about from new leadership at RTC and the City of Reno — in contradiction to their own consultants, and only in about the past two years. Prior statements and current documentation still show support for Center Street as the most preferred option for a downtown cycle-track.

Officials now say that, upon further reflection, the pause is necessary to research other alternatives — primarily, Virginia Street.

“Building a flawed project only to have to revise it or yank it out is fiscally irresponsible. We’re committed to building multi-modal infrastructure that works and works well for our community,” Thornley added.

Behind the scenes, public records show that those officials were coordinating with one another, and downtown’s largest casinos, to shift the focus of downtown micro-mobility from Center Street to Virginia Street.

Reno City Manager Doug Thornley during a meeting on affordable housing Feb. 22, 2022 in Reno, Nev. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

‘Fatal flaws’ 

Recent statements by city and RTC officials about Center Street are in stark contrast to Headway Transportation’s 2020 draft traffic analysis that found Center Street to be the safest and most preferred street for a cycle track.

The firm’s report notes: “A two‐way cycle track on Center Street was determined to provide the greatest safety and best connectivity improvement for the cost. This alternative had overwhelming support from the community at a public meeting and was also chosen as the preferred alternative by the Reno City Council and RTC Board.”

RTC’s executive director, Bill Thomas, however, last year told a reporter that advancing Center Street designs was necessary to spend public funds on what he called a “potential” project.

“What seems to be either misunderstood or intentionally ignored (we have explained this on many occasions) is that the initial approval was necessary to allow us to move forward to spend public funds on this potential project,” he told the Nevada Current’s Dana Gentry. “That approval was a necessary but not final approval of the project. Once the 100% plans have been completed (we are at the 30% phase) the project … will go to bid.”

Thomas, after responding to Gentry, was dismissive of her questioning.

“The angle seems to be to make the ROW [casino properties] the demon on this. Our answer will continue to be that we use a robust project design process that facilitates the necessary evaluation of issues raised,” he wrote in an email to an RTC staff member and to City of Reno officials.

Gentry’s questioning arose from a now publicized November 2020 letter by former McDonald Carano attorney Michael Pagni who advocated on behalf of his client, Caesars Entertainment’s downtown ROW casinos, by saying Virginia Street is more appropriate for a cycle track. Pagni requested other downtown entities join him in submitting letters of support to be included into RTC’s Regional Transportation Plan, a guiding document for the future of transportation in Washoe. County.

“…Initial studies have considered Center Street as a possible location; however, we believe Virginia Street is a more appropriate corridor. Virginia Street generally has fewer vehicles and slower traffic then (sic) Center Street,” he wrote. “Additionally, traffic signals and traffic patterns on Virginia Street accommodate both north and south bound traffic, suggesting increased safety and decreased cost. 

“Additionally, Virginia Street provides greater access to retail and other business uses which are likely to be frequented by bicyclists. Activating Virginia Street with bicycle connectivity is more aligned with current and future development plans.”

The request from the ROW, the first of at least two, was followed by government officials advancing what they said were a number of concerns with Center Street.

Thornley insisted this year the Center Street cycle track project had fatal flaws, a term he used in July. Those comments, in a podcast interview with This Is Reno, swiftly drew sharp remarks by bike advocates and others who have been waiting for Center Street construction to begin.

“Any infrastructure project comes with choices, and … there are a number of stakeholders that are not enthused with multi-modal infrastructure,” Thornley said.

The Headway study, however, determined Center Street is the best, and safest, alternative for downtown cycling. One person familiar with the project, and speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said concerns with Center Street are not abnormal and can be mitigated, just like the Headway report already determined.

“With mitigations, the cycle track can be implemented without creating unacceptable traffic operations within the corridor, even under projected 2040 traffic volumes,” Headway’s analysis notes. “The impacts to local businesses from reduced parking can be minimized by implementing strategies such as time-limited parking, to increase turn-over and use remaining parking more efficiently.”

An RTC staff memo from 2020 also reiterated “the cycle track will not significantly affect the existing traffic capacity along Center Street… The RTC identified both Center Street and Sierra Street as high priority bicycle projects in the Bicycle & Pedestrian Master Plan and as candidate roadways for complete street design treatments in the Complete Street Master Plan. These projects were also included in the first five years of the 2040 Regional Transportation Plan.”

That memo accompanied a request for approval by the RTC board in September of 2020 for another $3 million to Headway Transportation. This was for further study of both Center and Sierra Streets for potential bike lanes.

The RTC’s board meeting minutes show RTC commissioners approved the funding in a block vote with no discussion or concerns expressed about the project. After the ROW successfully petitioned RTC in November of 2020, though, officials then started calling out concerns with Center Street while creating plans to test bike and scooter lanes on Virginia and Fifth Streets.

The city of Reno’s director of public works, Kerrie Koski, wrote in an email in January of 2021 that the city “has asked RTC to evaluate Virginia St. as an alternative…”

RTC’s Bill Thomas responded by asking how specific the Regional Transportation Plan needed to be. 

“I ask because it feels like there is synergy at this moment to reach a decision on the future of Virginia Street that, perhaps, wasn’t there when we started the Downtown Circulation Study,” he wrote in an email.

Thereafter, in June of last year, Thomas took credit for putting the Center Street project on hold. He wrote an email after public outcry emerged when it was revealed the Center Street project was being held up in favor of Virginia Street studies.

You good with this concept? I am planning on using it to explain to the downtown stakeholders.”

“I want to take this opportunity to dispel what may be bad information circulating about this matter. Neither the Reno City Council nor City staff directed RTC to pause the Center Street project,” he wrote in an email to his staff, City of Reno officials and bike advocate Ky Plaskon. “Pausing the project after completion of the 30% project plans was my decision. 

“We did consult with key City staff about this pause but it was neither initiated nor promoted by them. It was my determination that materially significant facts/questions had arisen such that further evaluation was warranted before we proceeded to final design.”

He later estimated that the Center Street project would be a $10 million or more investment.

In August, Thomas, during an RTC board meeting, also denied there was an “anti-Center Street effort. A lot of things transpired from 2018, when this project was first conceptually created, and we feel obligated to the public and to you to make sure we turn over every rock before we get to a project being built. 

“It’s just doing our job in a way that the public and you [are] expecting us to do it,” he added.

An RTC executive disagreed.

“I recommend that RTC present the data comparing the Virginia and Center Street Cycle Track options to the RTC Board and City of Reno so that a decision on the most suitable location for a protected bike facility can be made in a transparent and data-driven way,” RTC’s former director of planning wrote about a month after Thomas’ statements to the RTC board. “This will allow RTC to proceed in an efficient and timely manner. If the RTC Board affirms support for the Center Street Cycle Track, final design can begin immediately.”

That never occurred.

RTC Executive Director Bill Thomas.
RTC Executive Director Bill Thomas. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno

RTC pitched a Virginia Street design to the ROW

One local official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, simply, “the city of Reno didn’t want the project on Center Street.”

Public records show street design decisions were being made behind the scenes and without public input.

A Jan. 7, 2021 letter from Pagni to Thomas, a follow-up to Pagni’s November 2020 letter requesting officials emphasize Virginia Street, shows the ROW was more insistent its ideas be included into the downtown study funded by RTC and the City of Reno.

“Significant interest is being generated in pursuing streetscape and transportation improvements to revitalize the downtown core and improve connectivity to the University and River districts,” Pagni wrote. “Can you please confirm that the information and concepts we previously provided will be included in the Downtown Circulation Transportation study?”

Thomas then directed RTC’s Director of Planning Amy Cummings to respond. She acknowledged the ROW’s input would be included in the Regional Transportation Plan.

“You put forward an innovative vision for a vibrant Virginia Street,” she wrote. “The Downtown Circulation Study will identify the suggestions you put forward, recognizing that the more robust and interdisciplinary analysis is beyond the budget of our current undertaking.”

Thomas proceeded to request of his staff a sample design for what a Virginia Street cycle track would look like.

“Do we have in-house capability to create an exhibit of the sample cross-section with the raised curb between travel and bike lane on Virginia?” he asked his staff. “If not, can we get one quickly from Headway or another consultant? I would like it to be able to explain to the key downtown stakeholders to see if there is general acceptance sooner than later.”

Thomas then shared that design, created by Headway, with city officials and his own staff.

The Center Street Project has become bogged down unnecessarily as a result of confusion about the purpose of the two undertakings, mixed messages delivered to the public, and a general lack of transparency.”

“You good with this concept?” he wrote to the city’s Koski. “I am planning on using it to explain to the downtown stakeholders.”

“Yeah, I gave Doug [Thornley] the heads up as well,” she responded.

After that, records show RTC’s Thomas scheduling a meeting with Pagni, the ROW’s Gary Carano and its Director of Government Affairs, Rick Murdock. The topic of discussion: a design for a Virginia Street cycle track by Headway Transportation. 

That draft design, according to public records, was then shared with one member of the public more than a month after the ROW’s personnel were solicited for input.

A few months later, the Reno City Council approved its portion of funding for the downtown circulation study. During the meeting, Mayor Hillary Schieve accused critics of being conspiratorial.

“It is not good if you have people gaslighting the process,” she alleged. “I was so discouraged when there are people out there, quite frankly on this body, that are making it difficult and I think it was inaccurate information.”

RTC leader also raised concerns

RTC’s Cummings, a week after the Reno council’s approval to fund the downtown study, wrote a lengthy email to a number of RTC and City of Reno officials with a list of what she called recommendations.

“As recently as this month, members of the Reno Council and RTC Board expressed their support for both [the Center Street project and Virginia Street placemaking study],” she wrote. “The Center Street Project has become bogged down unnecessarily as a result of confusion about the purpose of the two undertakings, mixed messages delivered to the public, and a general lack of transparency. 

“The 30% design plans for Center Street were completed in January 2021 and the project has now been on hold for nine months,” she added. “RTC should present the relevant data to the public and the RTC Board for a decision as to whether the Center Street Project will move forward or seek Board direction to change course.”

In response, her boss, Bill Thomas, denied RTC was not being transparent.

“I do not agree there has been a lack of transparency,” he responded. “We have had many direct and detailed conversations with [the Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance] on the status of this project.”

Thomas forwarded his response to Cummings to the city of Reno’s Assistant City Manager Jackie Bryant and Public Works Director Kerri Koski.

“Thought you might find this of interest. Her last day with RTC is today,” he told them.

“I’m frustrated our efforts have been construed so negatively,” Bryant responded.

Cummings would not comment for this article.

RTC Executive Director Bill Thomas requested this design for Virginia Street be made. He then shopped it around for input before the City of Reno installed micro mobility -- bike and scooter paths -- on Virginia Street earlier this year.
RTC Executive Director Bill Thomas requested this design for Virginia Street be made. He then shopped it around for input before the City of Reno installed micro-mobility — bike and scooter paths — on Virginia Street earlier this year.

Center Street concerns increasingly highlighted

Officials, after the Headway Transportion’s 2020 report, started to insert into documents, emails and on websites how the Center Street cycle track was a problematic project. 

When RTC’s Thomas, last year, sent a memo to Reno City Manager Thornley for a Reno City Council memo, what was not disclosed was that parts of Thomas’ letter, an update on various road projects, were actually written and edited by City of Reno staff.

The Reno city manager’s office made sure the letter highlighted what it called “concerns” with the proposed Center Street cycle track.

Assistant City Manager Jackie Bryant had the city’s director of public works, Koski, insert into the documents what she said were “concerns” with the Center Street project. The screenshot below shows an RTC document with the Center Street section authored by Koski.

Bryant, in the track-changes comments, told Koski to insert what Bryant said were the concerns with the Center Street designs, which Koski did. That letter was then put on RTC letterhead and sent by Thomas to Thornley.

In return, city of Reno staff member Barbara DiCianno forwarded the letter to the Reno City Council. Bryant then sent it back to Koski, Thomas and other city staff.

Assistant Reno City Manager Jackie Bryant told Public Works Director Kerri Koski to make sure to highlight "concerns" with the Center Street project. These edits were then included in a memo authored by RTC's Bill Thomas, who then routed it to the Reno City Council.
Assistant Reno City Manager Jackie Bryant told Public Works Director Kerri Koski to make sure to highlight “concerns” with the Center Street project. These edits were then included in a memo authored by RTC’s Bill Thomas, who then routed it ultimately to the Reno City Council.

Koski said the edits were only to ensure accuracy. RTC commissioner, Sparks Mayor Ed Lawson, also defended the action.

“Staff from local jurisdictions regularly collaborate before information is presented to a local council or board to ensure the accuracy of that information,” he said, adding that potential misinformation would be “more harmful in the long run.”

Sparks Mayor Ed Lawson.

RTC officials would not make available its staff to answer questions for this report, nor would the agency’s public information officer provide direct evidence to show why Virginia Street became a favored option over the Center Street project.

“I don’t have any additional information for you,” RTC’s Lauren Ball said.

She instead referred to the Regional Transportation Plan and a mass of public comments. Those comments, however, show more were in favor of the Center Street cycle track, and only a few proposed a Virginia Street redesign.

One public commenter encouraged RTC to make Virginia Street pedestrian only. The Reno Aces’ Eric Edelstein and realtor Tom Fennell both submitted statements of support for changes to Virginia Street. Edelstein specifically cited Pagni’s letter.

“I support their general alterations to the proposed RTC routing and believe it would be a benefit to all of downtown…” he wrote.

Others who crafted letters appear to have done so at the behest of the ROW’s Pagni. (Pagni, now an attorney for the Di Loreto Companies, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

Pagni in January of last year sent an email encouraging recipients to email RTC’s Thomas to support the ROW’s vision for changing Virginia Street. He attached his November 2020 letter to Thomas. That email and letter were then sent to the Downtown Reno Partnership’s executive committee.

“We need you to voice your support for prioritizing RTC improvements in downtown Reno,” Pagni’s email notes. “If you like any of the concepts or vision identified by the ROW letter, we would also welcome any comments indicating support of the concepts and vision.”

One entity that submitted a letter of support was the University of Nevada, Reno. UNR’s vice president of administration and finance sent a letter expressing generic support for the Virginia Street study.

I have never seen anything like this. The RTC’s studies provided solutions to every potential problem with a bike path on Center Street.”

“The University sees merit in the general concept for Virginia Street and looks forward to better understanding how circulation between these two areas will flow,” he wrote to RTC’s Thomas in January of 2021.

UNR’s letter, however, was sent to City of Reno officials – not by UNR, but by the Row’s Pagni. 

“Please enter this into the record…” Pagni wrote in an email to the Reno City Clerk.

UNR’s Kerri Garcia Hendricks, when asked why Pagni, who is not UNR’s attorney, sent a UNR letter to the Reno City Council, claimed such a practice is not unusual.

“Many of our leaders on campus are asked to support things going on around the city. Some we support, some we don’t. But as you know, letter writing in support of something is not unusual,” she said. 

Garcia Hendricks did not respond further. Records obtained by This Is Reno also show UNR regularly meets with City of Reno officials on downtown plans. In those meetings are lobbyists for developers and the ROW, as well as Mayor Schieve.

Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance president Ky Plaskon has been pushing for the Center Street bike track for several years. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno
Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance president Ky Plaskon has been pushing for the Center Street bike track for several years. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno

‘I’ve never seen anything like this’

RTC maintains Center Street is problematic. 

“Project challenges include maintaining parking for local businesses and residents, the levels of service at intersections within the design-scope area, loading zones, roadway capacity, maintaining safe parking garage access, and safety concerns about the interaction of the freeway and the cycle track,” the RTC’s website on the project now reads.

That sentence was not on RTC’s website until this summer. A screenshot of the Center Street project’s page from July of this year, shows the verbiage was added after late July.

“There are significant safety concerns about the interaction of the project with the freeway, a feature that is unique to the proposed project’s alignment,” RTC’s Ball wrote in an email. “These challenges were identified as the project moved through the initial design phase and will need to continue to be considered as the project progresses to the next phase of design.”

But the micro-mobility project on Virginia Street also had a number of flaws, some of which were noted by Headway Transportation and RTC’s own staff.

Virginia Street businesses were also opposed to the temporary project on Virginia Street.

Landon Mack, who owns Palace Jewelry and Loan, said he lost thousands of dollars in business after the city built the micro-mobility amenities on Virginia Street.

He provided to This Is Reno a petition signed by customers and owners of Friends Liquor, Puff & Stuff Smoke, Shooters Saloon, Siri’s Casino and others. 

“Business has been negatively impacted since lanes were put in,” one business owner wrote. 

All who signed the petition checked off a box saying they were not given ample notice of the pilot project.

Bike advocates, expecting a Center Street cycle track to be built in accordance with the public process of which they took part, said they are discouraged.

“The public deserves to know how the sausage is made, or in this case, not made,” said Ky Plaskon with the Truckee Meadows Bicycle Alliance. “I have never seen anything like this. The RTC’s studies provided solutions to every potential problem with a bike path on Center Street.

“But Assistant City Manager Jackie Bryant somehow got a draft of an RTC report. She cherry-picked problems, but not solutions, and inserted them into the RTC draft report like a Trojan horse. Then the RTC finalized the Trojan horse report and sent it to Bryant’s boss, City Manager Doug Thornley. Thornley then told the media that Center Street had ‘fatal flaws.’ That was news to us.”

Plaskon further said RTC’s Thomas, similar to Thomas’ former planning director, can take the pause off Center Street at any point.

He also praised the micro-mobility efforts by RTC and Reno.

“The protected path on Fifth Street by the City of Reno is truly bold and innovative. Countless people use it to get to school and work (my daughter included). Projects like that give us hope,” he added.

While Thornley stopped short of saying the Center Street cycle track was dead, there’s little assurance RTC will advance the project. The City of Reno, despite Thornley’s statement on Friday that the Center Street project was unlikely to advance, reiterated on Saturday the similar messages as before.

“We have paused the project to allow our team and the RTC to take a closer look at Center Street, taking into account significant safety and capacity reduction concerns,” said the city’s Cassie Harris. “This also includes applying the knowledge we gain from the Micromobility Pilot Project, Dutch Cycling Embassy Workshop and the Virginia Street Placemaking Study to the Center Street project. 

“Thoroughly analyzing these pieces is critical to determining how we can best serve our entire community now and for many years to come.”

The Dutch Cycling Embassy last week released its report after its visit to Reno in October

It includes a proposed design for a two-way cycle track – on Center Street.

City of Reno staff install temporary scooter and bike lanes on Virginia Street downtown. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno, May 2022.
City of Reno staff install temporary scooter and bike lanes on Virginia Street downtown. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno, May 2022.
Bob Conrad
Bob Conradhttp://thisisreno.com
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. He is also a part time instructor at UNR and sits on the boards of the Nevada Press Association and Nevada Open Government Coalition.