Why are so many of Amherst’s roads in bad shape? Should we prioritize building new sidewalks or repairing old ones? Can we please lower this speed limit? And how long will the Station Road bridge be out?
These questions were hurled at Town Manager Paul Bockelman Friday as 20 residents came to an informal meeting with him and Public Works Superintendent Guilford Mooring.
While Town Council candidates answer questions about how they would prioritize large building projects, many residents care deeply about these smaller problems. In many cases, the decisions will come down to how the Town Council chooses to spend a limited amount of money.
One of the roles of the 10 district councilors will be to field complaints from their neighbors about potholes, crumbling sidewalks and speeders. They won’t be able to order Mooring or the police to do anything, but they can communicate with Bockelman, and the Town Council can set priorities.
Here are some topics residents brought up Friday.
Roads. There’s a schedule for road repair, based on condition and traffic. Amherst has received $841,883 this year in state money for roads, sidewalks and bridges, but has an estimated $12 million backlog in needed road work. The town has supplemented the state money this year with $968,364 from the General Fund, by deferring some vehicle purchases. This will help offset a near-doubling of the price of asphalt in the last 16 years, which has limited the number of road projects the town has been able to do.
The Town Council could vote to continue spending additional town money on road repair, but that usually involves spending less on something else.
Sidewalks. East Pleasant Street was mentioned Friday as one place that needs sidewalks. But Bockelman said he believes that “we should take care of what we have before we build new ones.” There are many sidewalks downtown that get a lot of foot traffic and need repairs, and often they involve safety issues. “It’s a judgment call on how you spend your money,” Bockelman said.
Station Road. The bridge over Hop Brook closed recently, disrupting traffic patterns in South Amherst. Mooring speculated that high water levels caused a rapid deterioration of the beams. Through traffic on Station Road won’t resume for an estimated two to three years, Mooring said, partly because of all the site work state officials will require (the state pays for the repairs). The road and the brook must be surveyed in both directions, and mussel and turtle habitats must be dealt with, he said.
“The clock will take a long time to tick,” Bockelman said. “The environmental laws are very strict, and we want to comply with them.”
One resident suggested paving all of Mill Lane, which runs from Groff Park to South East Street, to give residents a quicker option for driving into the center of town. But residents who live on the paved portion of Mill Lane have always resisted paving the entire road, fearing increased traffic.
Speed limits. To lower them, you need to produce data about how fast vehicles are going, Mooring said. That takes money, but the state could pay for it on state roads such as Rte. 63, which was cited for a problem with speeders. Then you have to look at the number of accidents, and generally you can increase or decrease a speed limit by only five miles per hour, he said.
Residents asked about making their own traffic-calming signs. Bockelman said they have to be at least five feet from the road, and cautioned about “sign fatigue.”
Streetlights. Some residents said town officials should harass Eversource to get them to fix faulty streetlights. Mooring said the utility listens to customers more readily than to local officials.
Public restrooms. This is a common question from visitors to downtown, Bockelman said. The public can use the restrooms at Town Hall and the Jones Library when they are open, or the one at the police station 24/7, he said. Starbucks has a national policy of allowing public use of its restrooms, he said.
Because most road and sidewalk problems require money, it was perhaps ironic that Friday’s meeting came the morning after a presentation on next year’s budget. The new Town Council will be debating and voting on spending priorities next spring, and eight of the candidates attended the Thursday night meeting.