WESTERLY — The Bike Path and Cycling Advisory Committee plans to continue working, for the time being, on a bicycle and fitness loop in Misquamicut despite the Town Council's recent agreement to consider other uses for a $300,000 state grant awarded for the bicycle loop.
"My hope is the funds stay with the bicycle committee for either a construction package or actual construction," said Fred DeGrooth, chairman of the committee, during a recent interview.
On March 18, after being informed that the bicycle committee had not met since last spring, the council gave Town Manager J. Mark Rooney permission to research whether the state grant funds, which expire in about 15 months, could be used for a different, as-yet-undetermined project. DeGrooth said he was unaware that the council had planned to discuss the grant on March 18. "This came as a complete shock to the committee," he said.
The town was awarded a $300,000 grant from the state's Green Economy Bond in 2017. It expires on July 1, 2020. As part of a matching requirement, the town spent $30,000 on a feasibility study. The Pare Corporation, which performed the study, presented three options for a loop running along Shore Road, Weekapaug Road, Atlantic Avenue, and Winnapaug Road. The options carried cost estimates of $129,000; $4 million and $6.6 million.
In June, the Town Council told the committee it favored the $129,000 option, which called for painting sharrows on the side of the road and posting signs designating the area as a bicycle and exercise path. Sharrows are shared lane markings.
In the meantime, the composition of the council changed after the 2018 election.
Lisa Pellegrini, director of the municipal Department of Development Services, told the council that officials with the state Department of Environmental Management are looking for information on the town's plans for the grant. "We really need to figure out if we're going to use the grant for this particular bike path ... or if we want to ask whether we can alter the scope," she said.
The discussion comes as town officials are working to prioritize projects recommended in the municipal recreation facilities master plan. The plan calls for about $7 million in facility improvements.
Pellegrini provides quarterly reports to DEM on the bicycle path grant. "But when there's no activity it doesn't look good. And, the grant was supposed to be for a shovel-ready project," she said.
Requests that the bicycle committee conduct meetings to work on the project went unheeded, said Councilor William Aiello, the council's liaison to the committee. Pellegrini said she had also inquired about when the committee planned to meet.
DeGrooth told The Sun that he and Robert Ritacco, committee vice chairman, had been exploring ways to find additional funding and more precise cost estimates, with the hope of either finding additional funding sources or asking the Town Council for a possible bond referendum for the $4 million project. The more expensive option would provide a safer, dedicated bike lane, he said. Other committee members also favor the $4 million option, DeGrooth said.
"I'm not going to call a meeting if we're going to discuss the same exact thing we discussed a year ago ... we need a plan," DeGrooth said. "Let's get a plan together and then have a workshop once we understand what we're dealing with."
DeGrooth said he also spoke with council President Christopher Duhamel about looking into whether the $300,000 could be used for engineering and developing a firm construction cost estimate. Once a firmer plan is devised, DeGrooth said, he planned to call a meeting of the committee, probably for April, and then request a meeting with the Town Council.
"I said, let me put something together for the council to vote on or at least have a discussion," DeGrooth said.
DeGrooth also noted that the council had never formally voted to move forward on a specific project.
On Thursday, Pellegrini said that Rooney had asked her to explore whether a proposed eco-trail for a section of Atlantic Avenue in Misquamicut would be permitted by the state Coastal Resources Management Council. Town Council member Caswell Cooke Jr. asked whether the $300,000 grant could be used for the trail, which has been discussed for several years. Cooke is also executive director of the Misquamicut Business Association.
The eco-trail would cover a roughly half-mile stretch on the Winnapaug Pond side of Atlantic Avenue, from a spot across the street from Paddy's Beach Club to Two Little Fish at 300 Atlantic Ave. Cooke said the trail would create a safe pedestrian walkway on a section of Atlantic Avenue that does not have sidewalks. It would "connect the two ends of Misquamicut and function as an off-the-road bike path and a nature walk," Cooke said, adding that an area to launch kayaks into the pond is also envisioned.
A survey was conducted and conceptual plans were drawn up for the trail about five years ago, Cooke said.
DeGrooth said he would favor using the $300,000 for Cooke's plan if the council decides that the bicycle loop should not be pursued, but he questioned whether there were sufficient funds. "It doesn't sound like it's shovel-ready or can be done for $300,000," he said.
At the meeting, Duhamel, a civil engineer by profession, agreed, saying, "I don't think $300,000 would come close."
Councilor Sharon Ahern said she did not like the $129,000 plan for a bicycle loop. Those plans call for painting sharrows on one side of the road and posting signs to mark the area as a bicycle loop. "I'm not going to support anything with sharrows ... they're outmoded, outdated and unsafe. If we had funds for an independent bike path that would be one thing," Ahern said.
Rooney noted that some residents did not support a downtown bicycle loop that was outlined with sharrows and signs last summer. "We know the signs and sharrows really weren't very popular last summer ... so we didn't want to do more of them and be more unpopular if there's a better use of the money," he said.
Aside from his own quick review of the plans for the downtown loop, DeGrooth said the bicycle committee had no involvement with the downtown project. Easier passage through the downtown area emerged as a concern during a bicycling forum conducted at the Westerly Library in late 2017.
DeGrooth agreed that the lowest cost alternative for the Misquamicut loop is not ideal. "That's not going to save lives," he said.
DeGrooth, a resident of Shore Road, has pushed for years to make the road, which is popular with bicyclists and joggers, safer. He has been working on a bike path for about five years, both with the formal council-endorsed committee and previously through a less formal effort. He said he was concerned that the council's March 18 discussion portrayed his committee members in a bad light.
"I've had nothing to gain from this...I'm here to defend the committee members...we're doing our best and trying to lay out the best plan," he said.