An ambitious plan to add protected bike paths in Westerly is being touted by a resident who has recruited a few key members for a committee in hopes of providing some early critical mass for the proposal. Any plan for a bike path seems to be ambitious in this region, as there has been much talk by politicians and leaders and much interest on the part of the public, but nothing to show as yet. Plans for a dedicated bike path then, one that is off the road and protected by guardrails, seems especially ambitious.
Fred DeGrooth, who has written a boating column for The Sun, took the idea to former Town Manager Steven Hartford earlier this year and last week brought the idea to the Town Council along with Westerly Democratic Party Chairman Robert Ritacco. DeGrooth also has recruited his wife, Deidre, and Misquamicut Fire Chief Louis Misto along with a physician to serve as the committee’s medical adviser.
Making the town a more bike friendly area is part of the town’s Master Plan of Development, and Stonington leaders have talked about providing room for bikers for years. Back in January, the Charlestown Town Council, at the request of its president, Tom Gentz, talked about creating a bike path along Charlestown Beach Road to make it easier for walkers and bikers to get to and from the beach, which many people do without a vehicle.
Among the issues that seem to pose the biggest hurdles are acquiring the property and paying for the work. DeGrooth and anyone else who cares to take the lead in this effort could easily map out suggested routes, but such projects will require more than community activism and dedicated volunteers.
Based on the history of such movements in this region, or rather lack thereof, it seems clear now that to be successful such an initiative would have to be a priority for the town. And by that we mean a part of the budget process. And all boards and commissions would have to be in tune with the goal, as creation of bike paths could easily involve panels responsible for finance, planning and zoning, conservation, and setting policy such as the councils in Westerly and Charlestown and the Board of Selectmen in Stonington.
What became clear quickly in Charlestown was the need to get residents to deed land to the town for such a path since the town only owns one foot of land on either side of the narrow beach access road. Such undoubtedly would the case in any area.
After listening to DeGrooth present the idea in Westerly, town Councilor Kenneth Parrilla agreed that a bike path is needed for reasons of safety, explaining that he has often come upon bicyclists struggling to share the road with vehicles. “Someone is going to get hurt one of these days,” he said last week, a comment, nearly word for word, expressed by Charlestown’s Gentz.
Anyone who has experienced the dedicated bike trails of Cape Cod knows of the possible recreational opportunities that exist in this area. And anyone who has been to any major city knows of the proliferation of biking as a means of transportation by those in dress attire, not just those sleek racing outfits you see on Saturday and Sunday mornings in this region. The minority of bikers on the roadways here clearly are an annoyance for the majority who travel exclusively by car no matter how close the destination.
There is much talk by many about the need for exercise, the need for less pollution and less congestion — yes, even around here — the need for “greener” means of transportation, and of course about the price of fuel. But none of our leaders have been willing to make biking a true priority. Such a plan faces great challenges, but, just like biking, a little momentum leads to a real takeoff.