Roads, sidewalks, bridges, speed limits

Nick Grabbe

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.

Comments 6

  1. Good summary, Nick. But I didn’t think questions were “hurled” at the Town Manager, rather they were asked.

  2. Thanks Nick. The fix-it-first mentality that the town manager is promoting when it comes to infrastructure makes good sense to me. That being said, it doesn’t mean we as residents have to just accept the status quo, if it’s problematic. I’m excited about developing a vision and a plan for infrastructure and getting proposals shovel-ready. From there we can more effectively pitch them for state and federal grants or potentially even local overrides if residents want it strongly enough. One exciting step in this direction is tomorrow night’s first public forum to develop a Bicycle & Pedestrian Network Plan for Amherst. 6:30-8:30pm @ the Bangs Center… Hope all the cyclist and walkers represent. Wish I could be there, but out of town for work, so I’m eagerly looking forward to forum #2.

  3. I’m not commenting here about roads etc-

    But instead, I’d like to see more articles on this site about issues other than the Big Three (schools, public works, fire station); and appreciate that Nick is starting that. And I’d like to see an invitation to more people concerned and involved in solutions for Amherst to comment on this site.

    One good way to alleviate some of the divisiveness in our town is to have more positive interactions. To borrow from John Gottman’s work on successful marriages, you need a ratio of 5 positive to 1 negative to make a relationship healthy. And he says you can purposely create positives, not leaving it to chance. And telling someone “nice shoes!” actually counts as a valid positive interaction.

    And I’d like to add an idea, that Nick might write about more, in a future blog. That is, how do we (the town, and its citizens) promote and market our central business district and town centers where new businesses would want to open? and a diverse population would think to live?

    I have been to a few sessions co-produced by the town and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, presenting facts and figures about our commercial centers. It’s all been interesting, and one idea I have, to continue that progress, is to make available to Amherst people a packet (print and online) that describes why we are a good home for students looking to settle in Amherst after graduation, young families looking for an exciting and wholesome home town, retirees looking for a culturally and naturally rich area to settle after a full work life; new and expanding businesses who may not realize the buying power and customer loyalty in and around Greater Amherst, and developers who might propose the kind of small town/owner occupied/ parking-setback-affordable, not oversized, conforming to our improved zoning, not needing waivers, elements that they might invest in here.

    I also think the new Town Council might help in this effort by hosting the occasional “So you’re thinking of moving to, or opening a business in, Amherst, Mass?” event in the library, town hall, or large area in an Amherst restaurant. It could be a free booth show that would include the BID, Chamber, business owners and civic leaders who are moved to do some cheerleading.

    One other idea I’d like to propose, that may help with the Town Council, is to explore the value of instituting an Idea System in the town. A UMass professor, Alan Robinson, is a leading expert in this field, and he explains it all in 2 excellent books, Ideas Are Free, and The Idea Driven Organization. I am a colleague and friend, and am pretty sure I could arrange a talk on this topic, if 2 books don’t explain it well enough. The idea is that in a company, the front line workers are closest to the problems, and so have the best ideas for solutions; and that can easily be translated into residents as excellent idea generators, and councilors could have that as one more method of staying in touch.

    On another note, I want to say that (1) I am dismayed by the number of people who’ve told me I am “brave” to post on this site (2) sorry that I may have contributed to divisiveness, in the way I have criticized civic leaders in this town, who I don’t even know personally, and (3) invite others, who are not Amherst Forward people, to chime in with reasonable, neighborly, constructive input.

    In conclusion, I think that people want and need to feel safe in their home and town. We can improve quality of life by reaching out to others who are not like us, and I aim to do that more and more.

    1. Post

      Thank you for your comment, Ira. It contains some excellent ideas and deserves wider readership. I hope that after the election, we will realize that the charter and elementary-school votes are in the past and we should leave them there and move forward. When it comes to what to do about parking, or which roads and sidewalks to repair, or what buildings to build, or where spending priorities should be, there will not be pro-charter and anti-charter positions. I expect that previous alliances will fragment and we’ll have new coalitions on each issue. And that’s the way it should be.
      By the way, I am not aware that you have “contributed to divisiveness,” at least not on this blog. I think your comments have been thoughtful and well-researched.

  4. Nick, with less than two weeks left until our town council election, I think what most voters, particularly parents of younger children would find helpful would be a list of all the town council candidates who supported the New School in 2016/17 and those who opposed it. And I would add a third category; those who refuse to answer the question clearly or evade it entirely. I think we can all draw our own conclusions from that.

    I don’t think any other single issue the town has faced in recent memory was as critical to our children’s welfare as the new school vote and the campaign against it. Our children are now doomed to stay in sub-standard elementary schools for at least another 15 years, according to the experts who are working on the problem now in town. Of course, we COULD have had the school ready for kids in the fall of 2021 if not for the campaign of lies and scare tactics against it.

    It is my opinion that anyone who opposed the new school is not fit to be on the town council where similar decisions will need to be made for our kids in the future. I’m sorry, but there are consequences to mean-spirited and short-sighted actions. The kids aren’t getting a 2nd chance to go to a nice school… the people who killed it for them shouldn’t be given a 2nd chance to do it all over again.

    It doesn’t matter to me if someone supported or opposed the new town charter… that was a vote that didn’t hurt anyone… especially children… but the other vote did. And there are all sorts of other issues that we all agree and disagree on… those don’t matter either. But the new school was different… it was special… it was for our kids… yours and mine who are still going to those schools.

    Nick, if you know, could you please post as complete a list as you have of the town council candidates who supported the new school, those who opposed it and those who will not give a straight-forward answer. Please do this well before the election so the information can be gotten to as many voters as possible, particularly ones who may not see your blog.
    Thank you.

  5. I promise to read carefully all long-form submissions to this blog from Mr. Bryck and from ANY of the people who claim that he is “brave” to post here.

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