The joint new Paltz town-village Transportation Implementation Committee (TIC) could use more volunteers, but only the really patient need apply. After 13 years of working together on transportation issues in New Paltz, longtime members are only now starting to see some of the changes they have been working for come to pass.
Gail Gallerie is chair of the committee, which came out of a recommendation of the mammoth transportation and land use study that was undertaken shortly after the turn of the century. In addition to five community members, the TIC also includes liaisons from the town and village governments, as well as one from the state Department of Transportation. Four out of five of the volunteers have been working towards making the vision of that study a reality since 2003, with the fifth joining more recently.
“Members of the committee are best aware of the incremental changes that keep us going,” Gallerie said. While she’d love to add additional members with a background in transportation issues, “that’s pretty rare,” and she’s found that residents with a desire to make getting around town a bit easier are usually the right fit, so long as they also have patience. Lots and lots of patience.
Take, for instance, South Putt Corners Road. Widening it to allow for safe pedestrian and bicycle passage all the way out to the high school “is one of the earliest changes we advocated for,” Gallerie said, yet the actual work won’t be happening until next year. Even that was in doubt: the project was nearly taken off the list of priority projects, and pushed back even further. It was the members of the Bicycle-Pedestrian Committee who kept the project from falling off the list, Gallerie said. For all the time it’s taken, she counts it as a victory in the making. “This was the first time that Ulster County ever used an advisory committee that included community representatives for an actual construction project, rather than just the planning,” Gallerie explained; the Carmine Liberta Bridge is the second such project. “I’m extremely grateful.”
What community involvement means on South Putt is that business owners in particular are aware of what to expect. Some initial paving work revealed structural problems, deterioration of the shoulders that would have imperiled the larger project. This fall, work will be done to shore them up, and some trees are going to have to be removed as a consequence. While it’s not clear how many trees must die, what Gallerie does know is that it won’t happen until after bats have vacated them.
Improving safety for bicyclists and pedestrians is the purpose of the project, and Gallerie hopes that when the blacktop cools it will be more comfortable for people to ride and walk along that road, including students heading to the high school. There will also be at least one benefit for drivers, which came out of an information session held on the project: for northbound vehicles, right turns onto Route 299 will be easier once the work is completed.
Two of the intersections identified as problematic in the study continue to be challenging: where Chestnut Street and Manheim Boulevard each cross Main Street. They have been identified as the primary contributors to vehicular congestion. The charge of the committee is to seek solutions that don’t involve the taking of private property, meaning that the changes often are, as Gallerie calls them, “subliminal.” One change was the removal of some parking along South Chestnut, which allowed for a longer stacking lane. The buildings are so close to the road around that off-kilter intersection that there are significant constraints on what can be done.
At Manheim, the study looked at realigning the intersection, and also at constructing a roundabout. “We’ve managed to hold onto the money that would allow for a study and determination of what improvements are needed there,” Gallerie said, but the $7 million in promised state funds for the actual work has dried up during the intervening recession. In some ways it’s an easier fix, since the only building close to the road is the house that was once the site of the school district’s offices, but has since been vacated. According to Gallerie, “That’s property the district would be willing to sacrifice. I wouldn’t hazard a guess on what changes would be needed,” she continued, but by 2020 she is hopeful a clear plan will have emerged. With a scheme in hand, it’s possible that a new source of state funding might be secured.
While created to oversee implementation of the study, the TIC is tasked with other similar projects as well. Former Town Supervisor Susan Zimet sought their assistance last year in evaluating the condition of roads in the town. With guidance from traffic engineer Ken Wersted, committee members opted to seek out the opinions of community members first, and then perform a formal road audit on locations that were the focus of a lot of feedback. “We haven’t gotten a lot of responses yet,” Gallerie said, but both the town and village web sites will continue to have links to the survey through the summer. The committee has never met from June through August, and will evaluate the responses when they reconvene in September.
Another roadway of interest is Route 299 west of the Wallkill, and whether or not the 55 mile-per-hour speed limit is appropriate. “We first started looking at that in November 2013, and our recommendation to the Town Board was that it was worthy of further study,” Gallerie recalled. While the committee has never reached consensus on reducing the speed, “a clear majority believes it deserves to be studied by traffic experts. So far, the pros and cons continue to balance themselves out, and we would welcome experts to advise us on that.” The way forward to secure an expert opinion is for the Town Board to request a traffic study be performed by Ulster County specialists, which if in agreement with a lower speed limit would then be referred to state DOT employees. Planning Board chairman Mike Calimano has been reluctant to ask Town Board members to make that request until he’s confident there is enough data to support a speed reduction.
Inch by inch, lane by lane, TIC members motivate themselves by recognizing the small improvements that result from their efforts, and the hopes that big changes are indeed on the horizon.
Editor’s note: The willingness of residents to serve their communities plays a large role in what makes our towns so great. This is the third in a series of stories which will focus on volunteer committees/commissions and how their activities change a town’s local color. If you’d like to suggest a group to be included in this series, please e-mail editor Deb Alexsa at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous “Sowing seeds of community” articles, visit newpaltzx.com.