Letter: Novel idea — move Misquamicut parking lot to airport and use shuttle

Letter: Novel idea — move Misquamicut parking lot to airport and use shuttle

Record-Journal
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This letter has been updated to correct the lot number of the parcel referenced by the writer.

Misquamicut State Beach is one of the finest beaches in southern New England, drawing thousands of visitors each weekend since it was designated a state park in 1959. Over the decades, our town has seen the creation of Route 78, the expansion of Route 1, and the construction of a new beach pavilion with a 2,000-car parking lot to accommodate an increasing number of tourists.

Ask almost anyone who has lived here year-round if those measures have worked to reduce the impact of beach traffic, and they’ll be happy to name the roads that locals have learned to avoid for the duration of the summer.

This summer, as beach traffic clogged additional routes to the shore and turned quiet residential streets in Misquamicut village into new conduits for traffic, residents have been particularly focused on finding solutions to the traffic problem. Many good ideas were generated in the comments section of a July 21 Sun article about beach traffic, but most only suggested ways to manage the issue in the short term.

Westerly needs to completely reimagine the way people get to the beach if it ever hopes to meaningfully and comprehensively address its traffic issues. I am convinced that relocating the Misquamicut State Beach parking lot from Atlantic Avenue to a parcel of land adjacent to the Westerly Airport and near the intersection of routes 1 and 78, where motorists can park their cars and take a shuttle bus to the shore, is the most effective long-term solution to our beach traffic issue.

The primary cause of the severe beach traffic below Shore Road is the more than 2,000-car parking lot on Atlantic Avenue. No matter how many alternate routes motorists may take through town, every state beach visitor must ultimately descend upon Atlantic Avenue — a road with only one travel lane in each direction — from either west or east to reach the parking lot. While it is not the only parking lot along Atlantic Avenue, it is by far the highest-capacity lot, and is responsible for the majority of the beach traffic.

As long as motorists know that there is a parking lot adjacent to the state beach with plenty of space, they will try to drive there and in the process they will pile down one-lane roads until traffic backs up past Shore Road. Relocating the state beach lot eliminates the reason for all those motorists to overwhelm Misquamicut village.

I believe a parcel of land off Airport Road (AP 108, Lot 15) would be the ideal site for a replacement lot.

Several aspects of this parcel make it an excellent potential site for a new lot. First, its location near the intersection of routes 1 and 78 will naturally funnel motorists to the lot through roads that were meant to accommodate higher volumes of traffic. GPS navigation apps won’t be able to suggest worthwhile alternate routes because the major thoroughfares will already be the fastest and smartest ways to reach it. Building a parking lot in this location would eliminate state beach traffic south of the airport, which means that droves of vehicles will no longer inundate quiet residential streets in Misquamicut in search of less busy routes.

Second, the parcel is well-suited to utilization as a parking lot due to its location within the airport’s Transitional Zone, where height restrictions are imposed on construction. Given that this parcel is currently owned by the RI Airport Corporation, creating a parking lot here is probably one of the best possible uses for this land immediately adjacent to the airport. Neither the parcel’s deed nor its zoning district prohibits its potential use as a parking lot.

Third, the parcel’s 19.71-acre size provides plenty of room to build a replacement parking lot with the same capacity as the current, roughly 8.5-acre lot. It is important to maintain the same capacity as the old lot because we must balance two competing obligations: to provide visitor access to a state park and to cap tourism growth, which many town residents believe is essential to maintaining their quality of life.

Fourth, the parcel’s shape will allow for clear organization of motorist and bus traffic. Placing the motorist entrance/exit at the northernmost end of the parcel would get vehicles off Airport Road quickly and, perhaps more importantly, keep them out of the way of first responders at the police station just south of the parcel. In addition, keeping motorist access at the northern end of the parcel would minimize the length of Airport Road that would need to be altered to better accommodate the vehicle traffic. Locating the shuttle bus access road on the southern end of the parcel, where it could feed into the short street off Airport Road that leads to the airport itself, would permit the shuttle to run efficiently and effectively.

Simply moving the state beach lot is not a complete solution to the traffic problem. We would need to establish a shuttle bus system to transport visitors to the beach. The best option may be to contract service out to RIPTA, which already runs Beach Bus routes between larger cities upstate and beaches in Narragansett. RIPTA should be capable of providing a similar service in Westerly, especially if it has a guaranteed ridership to provide revenue. Alternatively, we could explore contracting with a private bus system.

Since the town has no prior experience in managing a shuttle service, we would benefit from learning best practices from the transit authorities of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, all of which have been transporting visitors to local beaches for years. Some key pieces of this puzzle, such as how the payment system would be structured, would be determined jointly between the transit authority, the state, and the town.

Many ideas expressed in the comments section of Sun articles about beach traffic would be quite useful if implemented in conjunction with a relocated parking lot and shuttle system. Suggestions such as installing signs farther up routes 1 and 78 to indicate the number of remaining parking spaces in the lot; stationing traffic control personnel at poorly-configured intersections along Airport, Winnapaug, and Weekapaug Roads; streamlining the process by which vehicles are admitted into the lot; and employing traffic workers to direct cars into parking spaces would all enhance the effectiveness of this proposed response to beach traffic. But without addressing the core problem — the current parking lot’s location on Atlantic Avenue –– these suggestions will only slightly decrease the severity of the current traffic patterns.

As ambitious as this idea may sound, it is not without precedent. Coast Guard Beach, part of Cape Cod National Seashore, operates a shuttle that brings visitors from a parking lot to the shore in much the same way that a potential Misquamicut shuttle system would. Many of these shuttle buses at other beaches have ample space for passengers and the items they like to bring along. For an example of this sort of system that’s even closer to home, look no further than Narragansett, which operates a Pier Area Shuttle that brings visitors from an elementary school parking lot to the beach and nearby businesses.

Given the size and configuration of Westerly’s roads, I firmly believe that the current location of the state beach lot is the single biggest source of traffic problems. Any multifaceted solution such as this would need to undergo thorough review by the state. Therefore, I encourage the Town Council to seek public input, to consider and explore the feasibility of this proposal, and to open dialogue with the state. We must convince the state that Westerly needs a solution to the beach traffic that has plagued it every summer for more than 40 years.

Alexander Berardo Westerly


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