Report from OHTF sparks broader conversation

Sun, 01/08/2023 - 4:10pm

The Old Harbor Task Force’s annual memo to the Town Council led to some meaty conversations at the council’s meeting on December 21, in turn leading to what might be called a road map for 2023.
The task force’s mission is to bring improvements to the downtown area. One may think of them as limited to park maintenance, but they have also been leaders in the procurement of the Big Belly trash cans around town. This year’s report includes observations on traffic, ferry rates, as they relate to the overabundance of cars coming to the island in the summer, electric bikes and scooters, a shuttle, street lights and sidewalks, the Visitor’s Center, trash cans and parking.
The four-page report includes a section on “ongoing problems” that reads: “As if you didn’t know...and as we have stated in every memo we have written: The bathrooms downtown need upgrading, downtown traffic is a nightmare, parking is a problem and the Visitor’s Center needs to be reorganized. We hope you noticed...trash pickup is better this year and we didn’t put it on the list.!”
Parking especially has increasingly been a problem, with those seeking a space getting ever more creative and various people in charge chasing them away like a big whack-a-mole game. Last summer, cars that residents observed belonged to seasonal workers started parking on the grass shoulder on Old Town Road from the Historical Society up to the curve just past Chapel Street. After a few months of neighbors complaining to various boards (Police Commission, Town Council) the Town Council finally granted the request to ban parking there.
“Perhaps we need to get some of our boards together on the same page, or agree that we’re all going to throw our arms up and give up,” said Town Councilor Molly O’Neill, who has also served on the Police Commission. “That’s not the page I’m on. I don’t want to give up on parking.”
O’Neill was referring to the granting of relief for some businesses that could not provide the amount of parking stipulated in the Zoning Ordinances, which is minimal. Complicating the problem is the lack of available space and an ordinance that only allows for parking as an accessory use. In other words, you aren’t allowed to have a stand-alone parking lot.
But, the conversation did not pause for parking, instead going right on to the need for a shuttle.
Two summers ago the taxi drivers organized a shuttle service that had a circular route between New and Old Harbors. It attracted very few riders and only lasted one season.
Despite that, a few boards, including the OHTF, would still like to see a shuttle service and seem to think it could alleviate part of the parking problem if used by people working downtown.
“I think you have to give the taxi drivers some credit,” said O’Neill, “for doing something the town asked them to try and they lost money on. Full disclosure: my husband has a taxi license.” She suggested a route that would just go from the downtown area to the beach, where visitors could take advantage of services that, in turn, bring in revenues for the town, such as those offered at the beach pavilion. “The town owns a bus that could be used. Just see how many people use it...Then you would know if it’s worth it.”
Second Warden Sven Risom agreed that they should at least put in on an agenda “To have that discussion.”
“I really think if you’re going to try this, start simple,” advised Councilor Martha Ball.
Another suggestion that the council took to heart was lighting on Weldon’s Way. Where the installation of permanent street lights is more costly and complicated, Town Manager Maryanne Crawford thought that something temporary could be done for next summer. She said she would have a conversation with Town Engineer Jim Geremia.
It’s not only the OHTF that noticed the dramatic increase in the use of electric bikes and scooters, not to mention an increasing number of motorized modes of transport for which there are no known names. Nor are there any known rules governing them.
The OHTF memo states: “Should there be regulations such as requiring riders to wear a helmet? The committee suggests looking at ways to make riding scooters safer. We hesitate to ban them as it is a cheap way for employees to get to work, if it is safe. The OHTF would like to know how many scooters were involved in accidents this past summer? That would be an indication of how safe a mode of transportation the scooter is.”
Risom suggested this was an area for the new chief of police to help tackle. “It’s getting more and more dangerous,” he said. “We need to tackle this and see what we can and can’t do [legally].” He suggested putting it on the agenda for April.
The conversation morphed into signage, “as a component of our overall traffic concerns,” said First Warden Keith Stover. “A lot of this stuff folds together.”
O’Neill suggested additional signage on the “west side,” with directions pointing which direction to go for certain places, “so people aren’t stopped in the middle of the road wondering how to get to the airport while looking at a map of Narragansett.”
“Could we just get rid of those maps?” asked Ball. One side has a map of Narragansett and the other one of Block Island. “I don’t know what else you do with terrible maps besides tell people to get rid of them. Which is what I do. Every day.”
Ball agreed about the signage though. “I think there are signs put out with the best of intentions that are just in the wrong place.”
Risom said: “We also need to make sure we don’t become the island of signs.” “I agree,” said Crawford. “We don’t want to get over-signed.”
“As long as we’re on signs,” said Stover, veering into the mopeds-on-dirt-roads subject. “Whatever we’re using is not working.”
Signs indicating “No mopeds” have come in various shapes and sizes ever since moped rentals began, and the complaints about violations are just as old.
“I live on a dirt road,” said Stover. “I can tell you: they don’t work.”
Crawford said she had had an idea for people renting mopeds: utilize a QR code that links to a map of the island that doesn’t show the dirt roads.
“I love that idea,” said O’Neill. “I haven’t heard that before, and I love it.”
“And I’ll have to commend the Old Harbor Task Force for bringing these things up,” said Stover.