Residents Prefer Narrower Sidewalks In State 'Safe Routes To School' Project

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Harwich Elementary School , sidewalks

A school bus negotiates the corner at the Harwich Elementary School parking lot at South Street. There are plans for changes the curb cuts and sidewalks along the road under the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes To School project. WILLIAM F. GALVIN PHOTO

HARWICH – Residents living along the 5,000 feet of sidewalk near the Harwich Elementary School proposed for Safe Routes To School improvements made it clear last week that they do not want to see eight-foot sidewalks that can accommodate bicyclists included in the project.

There was certainly agreement that the three-foot sidewalks that now serve the neighborhood need improvements, but given the rural and historic character of the area, a five-foot sidewalk alternative is better suited for Harwich, said residents.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is providing a $685,000 Safe Routes To School grant to improve sidewalks around the elementary school. The goal is to increase the number of students walking and biking to and from school by improving the safety and usability of the existing facilities.

On Sept. 13 MassDOT held a virtual public information meeting as the project approaches the 25 percent design stage. Residents of the area said they preferred the five-foot design alternative rather than an eight-foot-wide path. Residents also raised issues about the need for vehicle speed reduction measures along the roads to enhance pedestrian safety.

The design alternatives include a five-foot sidewalk to be installed along the west side of Sisson Road from School House Drive (the entrance to the former middle school) to Main Street; on the south side of Main Street west to South Street; and on the east side of South Street to the elementary school. The alternative proposal calls for the creation of an eight-foot-wide shared-use path for pedestrians and bicyclists along South and Main streets and a six-foot sidewalk on Sisson Road. Granite curbs are also proposed.

Project manager Jonathan Freeman said the existing sidewalks are three feet wide and there are curb cut issues and inconsistencies in crosswalk striping. The improvement project will make the curb cuts compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, adjust crosswalks, and add a two-foot strip along the new sidewalk side of the road under the five-foot design alternative.

Former state senator Paul Doane, who lives along the Main Street section slated for improvement, said he always supported MassDOT during his political life and is supportive of the improved sidewalks, but he expressed concerns for the eight-foot alternative, saying it is not appropriate for the Cape.

The current sidewalk is out of date, he said, adding that two people can’t walk along it side by side. He emphasized the importance of keeping the grass buffer between the road and sidewalk that comes with the five-foot alternative.

Department of Public Works Director Lincoln Hooper concurred with Doane’s position not to implement the eight-foot alternative design.

One resident said the MassDOT presentation focuses on physical safety improvements, but another aspect is vehicle speed, which can be well above the 40 mph limit, he said. He asked if there were other features that could be built into the design for enforcement of speed to make it safer for kids going to school.

James Turner lives on the corner of South and Main streets and said he has had a car run into his deck. He questioned the adequacy of the turn radius at the intersection. Vehicles travel 50 to 60 mph along Main Street, he said, and whip around the corner. Kids on bikes cut through his yard to avoid the corner, he said.

I don’t understand why you don’t have something that says school in the area,” said Turner. “Somebody will be killed in that area.”

Amy Archer of Pare Corporation, who is in charge of design improvements, confirmed the curb radius at the location is “pretty tight,” but added replacing curbs at the intersection is out of the school zone and not part of the project. Rectangular flashing signs are part of the project, however.

MassDOT Assistant Development Engineer Richard Bilski said the original intent was to address the sidewalks and not do modifications to the roadways. He also said the eight-foot alternative was added to the project later in the planning process.

The eight-foot alternative fits into the state’s Complete Streets Program, which is about “making people feel more comfortable and safe,” said project manager Freeman.

Carol Porter wanted to know why the sidewalk improvements stop at the south side of the elementary school and do not extend down to the intersection with Sisson Road. MassDOT has financial constraints, officials responded.

Jay Walpole lives along Sisson Road, a few houses north of the School House Drive entrance into the former middle school property. He said no kids walk to school along Sisson Road. The major issue there is cars parking along the berm in front of his house as parents stack up to drive School House Road to pick the kids up at the elementary school, he said. The cars stack up on Chloe’s Path across Sisson Road as well, Walpole said,

“If you build a bigger sidewalk it will not encourage more students to walk,” Walpole asserted.

If you build it they will probably come” was the MassDOT response.

Freeman said once the 25 percent design is completed there will be a public hearing in Harwich. The project is expected to be advertised for bids in late fall of 2023 with construction taking place in the spring of 2024 with a 2025 completion date.