There's Still Hope For The Project, However
HARWICH — Hope that a policy change in the Massachusetts Department of Transportation's Complete Streets Program could pave the way for a long-sought sidewalk along Route 28 from Saquatucket Harbor to Harwich Port may have been premature.
The agency altered its policy on sidewalks and bike lanes, which could not have been accommodated on both sides of Route 28. But now funding has emerged as an issue. The $250,000 approved in the capital plan in the 2018 annual town meeting as the town’s share of the project is no longer available. The funds were returned to the general fund last year when the town officials sought to balance the FY21 budget after the pandemic hit.
However, a private donation could help keep the project alive.
DPW Director Lincoln Hooper received an email from Mass DOT District Six Director Pam Hasner earlier last fall explaining that changes in the Complete Streets Program will allow for waivers from provisions requiring sidewalks and bike lanes on both sides of a roadway if there is not enough space to accommodate them. Hooper has said there is no way sidewalks and bike lanes could be installed along both sides of Route 28 from the harbor to Harwich Port, as was required by the program, because of property issues and right of way easements that would be required. Hasner wrote in her email that with the waiver allowance, the sidewalk proposal may now be “viable,” and she would be bringing the project to the next MassDOT project review committee meeting.
The project could move up in the Transportation Improvement Program because it is not an extremely expensive project and it could take shape over the next few years, Hooper said. The Cape Cod Commission has submitted a project need form with the MassDOT project review committee for the sidewalk project and is scheduled to meet on Jan. 29 to review it among other proposed projects.
“If the state approves it, we’d like to get moving as quickly as possible. The town should be ready to go, if a funding slot becomes available,” Hooper said. But, he added, “It doesn’t look like the project is dead because the $250,000 was turned back.” The town has a commitment from a property owner in town to make a $250,000 donation to be used for the project, he said.
The town has been pushing the project with MassDOT since 2015. In 2018, town meeting approved $250,000 in the capital plan as the town's contribution. Under the TIP program, the town would be responsible for funding the project design and obtaining the necessary easements for the six-tenths-of-a-mile sidewalk.
The town was unsuccessful in landing a $576,500 Mass-Infrastructure Program grant for the project and the effort seemed to stall.
The latest version of the capital plan that will head to town meeting in May identifies $200,000 under administration for the project to be funded from free cash and $400,000 for the sidewalk project through a grant. Those funding requests were approved in the FY21 capital plan in September and were to be matched with the $250,000 previously approved.
However, Interim Town Administrator Joseph Powers informed the finance committee a couple of weeks ago in a public hearing on the capital plan that the $250,000 was “one of those give-backs to balance the budget.” Powers told later selectmen that the money was turned back to offset the fiscal budget in 2021. The project had been turned back by the DPW director because, at the time, there was no sense the state was on board with it, he said.
Hooper said he received a request from Powers asking if there were any old articles with money in them that could be returned. Hooper said he informed Powers and Finance Director Carol Coppola at that time that there was little traction on the sidewalk project and suggested those funds could be considered. Hooper said he heard no more until Powers informed the finance committee the $250,000 was returned to the general fund.
After town officials determined there may be a new life for the sidewalk project, Steven Rhoads of VHB, Inc. the town’s highway engineering consultants, made a presentation on the status of the project. The sidewalk construction would be on the south side of the highway extending from the harbor to Bank Street. Rhoads said the design phase would cost in the $225,000 range and construction $789,000.
Coppola said the $250,000 was not directed for use in balancing the budget, rather it was rescinded and returned to the general fund. Powers said he was under the impression it would be used to balance the budget.
“It was my understanding this is a standard action the town has done,” Power said. “It has been past practice, but given the questions on this one, I’m going to educate myself and do it properly.”
Powers said there needs to be a broader discussion on the funding for the sidewalk project. He will be meeting with the capital outlay committee on Jan. 11, and the project will be part of those discussions.
“It’s very positive energy,” Powers said of renewed interest in the sidewalk project. “It’s sorely needed, if there is momentum, let's ride it.”