There's a new restaurant at 77th Street and Aurora Avenue, El Dorado Grill. Just a few weeks ago, owner Paco Cardenas hung a bright red sign in the window. But the flashy poster isn't advertising his Mexican food, burgers, and tiramisu. Instead, the sign protests a city plan to eliminate parking in front of Cardenas' restaurant and dozens of other businesses.

"Keep Aurora Safe!" the sign says. "At Risk! Pedestrian Safety, Vehicle Safety, Bicycle Safety, Neighborhood Parking, Your Tax Dollars."

Why are Aurora's business owners freaking out? The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) plans to eliminate a two-mile stretch of Aurora parking to accomodate evening rush-hour buses this spring. Cardenas, like most business owners on Aurora from 72nd to 110th Streets who've hung signs, also has a petition denouncing the plan, which merchants say will turn Aurora into "I-5 West."

"I'm getting a lot of signatures," Cardenas says. "If they take the parking away, that will ruin the businesses."

Aurora already has parking restrictions from 72nd to 110th. In the morning, there's no parking on the southbound side of the street to alleviate traffic headed downtown. In the evening, it's reversed: There's no parking northbound.

This spring, the city plans eliminate parking on the downtown-bound side from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., making way for improved bus service. The far-right lane--called a "Business Access and Transit" lane, or BAT lane--would be earmarked for buses and right-turning cars. SDOT officials says that will shave a few minutes off each bus trip.

And the move to a BAT lane will pave the way for "Bus Rapid Transit" (BRT) along Aurora. With BRT, buses act like trains, zipping people downtown every 10 minutes, with limited stops. "That type of reliability is the best way for transit to compete with cars," says SDOT transportation planner Therese Casper. Mayor Greg Nickels championed BRT during last month's State of the City speech. "I said we would do something about moving people through one of our most underutilized corridors, North Aurora Avenue," Nickels said. And why not? Mass transit is a progressive idea; It's logical to improve it on Aurora, a straight shot into downtown Seattle carrying 40,000 cars a day.

Aurora businesses, however, see the bus plan differently, saying it will choke Aurora's business climate. But before you write off the merchants as NIMBY anti-transit weirdoes, listen: They have a solid case.

The Aurora Avenue Merchants Association (AAMA) and its tireless executive director, Faye Garneau, have taken their case to the city several times, most recently at the February 4 Seattle City Council Transportation Committee meeting. Armed with stats proving their point, the AAMA wants a full-impact study of the parking restrictions (not to mention the BRT plan).

Almost without exception, businesses are worried about losing parking. Once the new regulations start, Aurora business owners from 72nd Street to 110th Street won't have evening on-street parking. Some businesses--like El Dorado Grill--don't have alternatives. Several owners have said that the parking ban, in addition to the general economic slump, may shut them down.

Folks on Aurora also argue that southbound evening traffic isn't bad, and doesn't call for a special bus lane. Duh--it's southbound, headed in-city, after work. In the evening, "everybody is going north, coming from downtown," Cardenas points out. Randy McAllister, at Aurora Suzuki on the southbound side of 74th Street, agrees. "At 5:00 p.m., a nice easy flow of traffic goes by."

The AAMA's arsenal of stats backs that up. Metro's own ridership numbers for route 358 (the lone Aurora route) show a sharp evening decline in bus riders headed downtown. While the average "load per hour" is about 200 people headed downtown in the morning, Metro's ridership numbers drop dramatically at 3:00 p.m. In fact, 40 percent fewer people ride the 358 south in the evening--only about 120 "load per hour." If fewer people ride the bus south on Aurora in the afternoon, why should they get their own lane? "Do they really think this [plan] is beneficial?" McAllister asks.

Furthermore, the AAMA has stats on accidents for the current BAT lane on Aurora from 117th Street to 145th Street--that indicate the lane is dangerous. According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, of 396 accidents reported for that section of Aurora over three years, 182 happened in the northbound BAT lane. Only 42 occurred on the southbound's non-BAT far-right lane.

"We don't hate buses," Garneau says. "But we have to understand the results of our actions. And this action is not good."

And if you still think Garneau and the AAMA's businesses are anti-transit kooks, think again. While Metro and the SDOT say ridership is increasing on route 358--20 percent in the last four years--the AAMA points out that the monorail will eventually run adjacent to Aurora. When the elevated system is running, the AAMA argues, transit users will be more likely to take the monorail--and get downtown in about 15 minutes--than a clunky bus. Even the BRT system is unlikely to compete with the speedy monorail. And if the initial monorail line is extended, it will probably intersect Aurora around 100th Street, making it convenient for transit-minded folks.

After monorail, if the Aurora bus ridership continues its 20 percent growth, that's still only about 20 more folks added to the evening downtown-bound "load per hour." That's not enough to justify an additional bus. Even if it were, Metro can't afford to add buses right now. When the Metropolitan King County Council acknowledges a lack of funds for additional bus service.

The AAMA's kick-ass arguments had the intended effect at the Seattle City Council. "We want a more thorough review from [SDOT]," says Transportation Committee Chair Richard Conlin.

Meanwhile, the AAMA sent a letter to the city's Department of Transportation on February 14--signed by the association's attorney, monorail guy Cleveland Stockmeyer, who also owns property in the area--firmly requesting another meeting to discuss the plan. SDOT planner Casper says it's in the works.