HARWICH — Connecting Harwich Port and Saquatucket Harbor with a sidewalk is a few steps closer to reality.
Town Engineer Griffin Ryder said discussions have been taking place between the town and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, and a new directive from the state agency could pave the way for construction of the sidewalk. Officials are also looking for public input into the sidewalk proposal at Monday's meeting of the board of selectmen.
The town has been pushing for the past six years to connect Harwich Port and Saquatucket Harbor with a sidewalk along Route 28. The town sees a sidewalk as both a safety needed and an economic generator. The town and the state have made major financial commitments to improvements of the Saquatucket Harbor waterfront, both water side and land side.
Ryder said he has been meeting with MassDOT, VHB, Inc., the town’s consulting engineering firm, and the town's department of public works on the sidewalk connection. The good news is a recent MassDOT engineering directive will permit exemptions from the state's Complete Streets program, allowing a new sidewalk on just one side of a road if it is not possible to put one on both sides. The Complete Streets program previously required sidewalks and bike lanes on both sides of a state road.
While the town has spent $11 million and the state Seaport Economic Development Council $2 million on harbor improvements – including a new dock and slip system, new harbormaster office and workshop, restaurant, artisan shacks, ADA compliant access to the marina and commercial boating businesses, improved public observation areas and expanded parking – there is no linkage to nearby Harwich Port. Over the past couple of years activities in and round the harbor have increased. The addition of Outer Cape Health Services. Inc.'s major health clinic across Route 28 from the entrance to the harbor has drawn additional vehicles and pedestrians, and the addition of the 90-room seasonal employee housing facility just to the east of the harbor is sure to draw more foot traffic.
In a town meeting in 2018, voters approved $250,000 for the sidewalk project. But the cost of the project grew with state requirements and the need to address passage over Carding Machine Brook, adjacent to Brax restaurant. Sidewalk construction estimates were in the $825,000. The town applied for a Massachusetts Infrastructure Program grant for $576,500 to assist with the cost of the project, but the application was denied.
There have been a number of efforts to activate state interest in the project. When Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito was in town for the ribbon cutting ceremony for the re-opening of Saquatucket Harbor last year, her staff was coaxed into a short walk along the dirt path used by pedestrians along the edge of Route 28.
A louder message was sent to Gov. Charlie Baker in August 2019 when 10-year-old Peter Lipscomb, a summer resident of Harbor Road, sent the governor $50 earned from his lemonade stand to help fund a sidewalk. Lipscomb said he lives close to Harwich Port and to his cousins, but he can’t walk there because there are no sidewalks.
“Cars go very fast there and you are only about a foot from the road. It’s very scary and dangerous to kids like me, and adults too,” Lipscomb wrote in his letter to Baker. “I’d like to be able to bike to the center of town or to tennis lessons, but cars are passing a foot away.” Baker returned Lipscomb’s money, thanking his for valued input and saying the administration was grateful to have his voice as part of the discussion.
Ryder said if the state required sidewalks and bike lanes on both side of the road the project would never happen because it would require too much land taking. VHB engineers believe a sidewalk on the south side could be done with minimal impact, he said.
The town is looking at two options. One is to go the Transportation Improvement Program route in which the town does the design and TIP – state and federal money – pays for the construction. Because it is not a major funding project, Ryder said the work might be able to slide up on the TIP's priority list. The town will be attending the TIP project review committee meeting in January to get the proposal on the radar screen.
The second option is for the town to seek permits and pay for design and construction. Ryder said the town has heard from a private donor willing to provide $250,000 toward the sidewalk.
MassDOT, Ryder said, wants to be sure there is support for the project within the community, and there has yet to be a public meeting on it. That will happen within the Nov. 23 selectmen’s meeting.
Ryder said it important for residents to participate attend and show support for the project. The meeting will be held remotely and people can gain access by clicking on the GoToMeeting section of the selectmen’s agenda.
“I think it’s a really great project,” Ryder said.