A congestion of issues, ideas
The members of the Town Council and a gathering of town residents wrestled with both logistical and philosophical questions at a meeting at Town Hall on Wednesday night, as a discussion about traffic flow and moped use — and whether mopeds should even be allowed — blended with safety issues, the use of Weldon’s Way as what many called the “moped training area,” the size of signage, the lack of sidewalks, and alternative traffic routes that could help relieve congestion in the downtown area during the summer.
There were no conclusions or decisions to be made, as Town Manager Ed Roberge said at the outset of the two-hour discussion. “We’re on a fact-finding mission,” he said, but some ideas were tossed about.
Resident Chris Warfel, after Roberge laid out the broad framework of the discussion, said he was concerned that the town “was looking at so many things that it will not be possible to come up with a solution. My issue is mopeds. They are a cancer on this town. They have certain rights but they abuse the public trust. Safety problems could be alleviated by eliminating the mopeds.”
Roberge said the topic of the evening was “public safety and traffic safety, and the mopeds are part of that,” and that Warfel’s concerns would have been better suited to the vote the council took the previous Monday to renew the licenses of the five moped rental companies in town. (See page 8.)
“The fact that I wasn’t able to be here Monday night shouldn’t change any of that,” said Warfel.
“Moped safety is a big concern for a lot of people, no question,” said Roberge.
Resident David Lewis later said he did, in fact, bring up the safety issue on Weldon’s Way on Monday night, but was told that it would be a topic of discussion at the Wednesday work session. Lewis said that when the council first put on its agenda an item that would discuss topics for future town council meetings, Weldon’s Way was one of the first issues brought up.
“Everybody has been waiting for that followup discussion and that is what we’re having tonight,” said Lewis. He said that the presence of the mopeds were part of a complex safety issue involving cars, taxis, bikes, and pedestrians, but as far as the mopeds themselves were concerned, “I think we have to learn to live with them.”
One of the moped rental company owners, Johnny Leone, said that a big concern, on Weldon’s Way and other places, is the lack of sidewalks. “There is no place for people to go,” he said, adding that a big part of the congestion problem downtown is when the boats let out. He said with better management of traffic flows “the difference would be dramatic.”
Leone said that Warfel’s “approach is too dramatic. We have been willing to work with the town, putting up signage, [training people] to slow down on curves.” He added that mopeds are “also a draw to Block Island, so we can come up with a way better solution.”
John Cullen, who owns businesses on Water Street, said that “I personally believe that in July and August we have a crisis. I hear that people drive around for half an hour and could not find a place to park. Any plan has to address parking, we have to find a way to increase parking downtown. That has to be part of any plan. We have more cars than we can accommodate.”
Cullen mentioned that errant parking at the parking lot of the Block Island Grocery became such a problem last summer the store had to hire a parking monitor.
But Roberge said that employees of the stores located on Water Street were “parking in prime spots. How do we solve that problem?” He mentioned that perhaps there were undeveloped parcels of land in the downtown vicinity that could be explored for parking use.
“Parking is a considerable constraint. No question parking is needed,” he said.
Carolyn Collins, owner of Lazy Fish on Dodge Street, said “Parking is a huge issue, but it’s our employees. As business owners who want business in our shops, we have to tell our employees to park elsewhere. That will do a lot to move these vehicles out of town. It’s a problem.”
Councilor Chris Willi said that “Carolyn’s point is very accurate,” while also recommending that employees park off-site or perhaps carpool.
On a different point, Roberge said an option on the table would be to close a section of Chapel Street — roughly from Eli’s Restaurant to Water Street — and turn it into an “open pedestrian mall.” That idea received some favorable responses. Resident Steve McQueeny said that area could also be used as a loading zone that would take the larger delivery trucks off Water and Chapel Streets during the summer.
The overall idea, said Roberge, was to create a plan that would “distribute traffic to other places.”
Other issues, such as jaywalking, and the stop bar on High Street that causes motorists to creep up into Fountain Square to see if there is incoming traffic, were also discussed. Warfel also suggested widening Weldon’s Way, with Roberge adding “there would be significant benefits to a redesign of Weldon’s Way.” Cindy Lasser, the newly appointed Executive Director of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce, suggested that the $75 fee for island tours by the taxi companies might be adding to traffic congestion because visitors might forego that expense and rent a bike or moped to see the island instead.
Councilor Willi also said that adding more community services officers in the summer was also on the table, with the added personnel dedicated to some of these traffic and safety issues.
Near the end of the meeting, resident David Lewis said, “We have to work our way out of this box somehow if we’re serious about maintaining the vitality of this community.”