Pedestrian safety was a recurring theme Tuesday night in a virtual meeting on how to integrate the needs of walkers into Hopkinton’s infrastructure.
Planning Board chair Gary Trendel, who facilitated the meeting, said it emerged after the board heard repeated inquiries since the end of 2020 for more sidewalks and trails. But there was a disconnect when it came to voting for funding for them at Town Meeting.
A pedestrian connectivity survey was conducted last year to help “understand the drivers” behind the requests and generate public input on potential solutions. Around 350 responses were received, Trendel said.
One interesting survey data point he pointed out was that people were willing to walk more than a mile if there was increased accessibility.
Another was that more than 85 percent of respondents said more trails and sidewalks would improve mental and physical health. The majority of respondents were runners or fitness walkers, and the concept of trail loops of 2 or 3 miles was important to them.
Said Trendel: “I think it’s important to recognize that the best thing we can do is give people options.”
While recreation was stressed, the overarching theme of the meeting was safety. Cars speeding and ignoring pedestrians, particularly on Elm Street and near the Town Common, was highlighted by Kathy Waldron.
She described how a vehicle passed her car as she waited for a family with a stroller to cross Main Street.
“Some impatient person behind me zoomed around me and almost killed that whole family,” Waldron said. “It makes it difficult that people just don’t stop, and I wish that could be enforced.”
Trendel read one comment in the chat that summed up what Waldron and others alluded to: “I’d love to be able to cross Main Street without dying.”
At Elm Street, Waldron was unsure if the speed limit is even posted.
Department of Public Works Director John Westerling said that it is a “lengthy process” to lower the speed limit, and it would require an engineering study by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. He added that he would send an email to Police Chief Joseph Bennett to inquire about a speed limit sign.
“I know it’s MassDOT, but I don’t really care,” said Ria McNamara, stressing that speeding is impacting the west side of town.
With regard to Main Street, Westerling noted that Main Street Corridor Project construction will be initiated after the Boston Marathon on April 17.
Said Trendel: “Most streets in Hopkinton have speeders, and most streets in Hopkinton have some inherent risks for pedestrians.”
Sidewalks would protect pedestrians from speeding cars and consequently allow them to drive less frequently to get to their destinations, according to meeting participants. Sidewalks and trails of varying widths and surface types to accommodate walkers, runners and bikers are essential, Trendel explained, noting that it’s not an either/or decision.
The need for accommodations for older residents, people who have disabilities, and walkers with strollers also were highlighted in the discussion. Benches were mentioned as something that should be included in sidewalk plans.
McNamara emphasized “social equity” in infrastructure improvements, as Interstate 495 is seen as a dividing line. More work has been done on the eastern side of Hopkinton, she said, and it’s time to focus on the western side as its population grows.
Said McNamara: “I just want to see some of that love come our way.”
“I think the crux of this — the biggest challenge — is how we’re going to pay for things,” Trendel said.
Alternate funding sources could be grants, or in some cases, money from the Community Preservation Commission.
The pressure for potentially implementing the MBTA Communities law may generate grant opportunities for connectivity between nearby commuter rail stations to the downtown area, Trendel added.
One priority that came from the meeting was connectivity under I-495 and the Price Chopper shopping area. Jane Moran, a Planning Board member and chair of the Upper Charles Trail Committee, said she has been working on this. She said “the elephant in the room” is the topic of possible eminent domain to take land for sidewalks.
Two major options were discussed for improvements. One, which the majority of participants said they preferred, was to create a sidewalk on Main Street from Lumber Street to Downey Street, just beyond the Price Chopper.
Said Westerling: “When I see folks that currently walk that … I cringe in fear because they’re up against two and sometimes three lanes of traffic that are moving at well over 45 mph.”
The other was a shared use path from the Southborough Commuter Rail Station to the downtown area.
Traffic as well as potential users should be factors in making these decisions, Trendel said. He noted that many people downtown might want to walk to the train station rather than drive. Planning board member Matthew Wronka also added quality of life as a factor.
Smaller projects could be addressed more quickly from a financial perspective, Trendel said. Two of these will be voted upon at the Annual Town Meeting on Monday, May 1.
One proposed sidewalk would connect Chestnut Street with Wild Road and Smith Road. This would increase pedestrian access to the downtown area for residents in the Connelly Hill and Ravenwood areas. He noted that a young person was struck by a car in that area several years ago, which prompted the discussion about sidewalks.
The second article proposed sidewalks that would connect Blueberry Lane to EMC Park.
Annual requests for sidewalk funding and developing a multiyear plan may become priorities as a result of the desire for connectivity.
Trendel summarized the meeting with the classic movie line: “If you build it, they will come.”