After months of discussions about Keene’s extensive downtown infrastructure plans, a city council committee Wednesday narrowly recommended keeping the area above ground largely the same.
The more than $14 million project now heads to the full council next Thursday for a final decision on designs.
Slated to begin in 2025, the downtown infrastructure project would rip up Main Street to perform upgrades to outdated water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure. The ongoing debate at City Hall has surrounded how the downtown cityscape should look when that work is done.
Amid possible designs that included a revamped Central Square with expanded greenspace and a roundabout to replace the current signalized traffic circle, members of the council’s Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee voted 3-2 for a design that includes keeping the current pattern of the square. Minor alterations would consist of improvements to lane markings, lengths of crosswalks and traffic-lighting systems.
Councilors Mitch Greenwald, Randy Filiault and Kris Roberts voted in favor of the motion, while Councilors Catherine Workman and Bobby Williams voted against it.
As part of the same vote, the committee also recommended a raised crossing table connecting Gilbo Avenue and Railroad Street; keeping parking along the center median; and that the project include sewer and water infrastructure for the installation of public bathrooms at a later date.
The committee’s motion specifies that protected bicycle lanes would not be included in the final design, a feature that local cyclists have advocated for.
Much of Wednesday’s committee discussion was dedicated to whether the project scope should encompass these bike lanes at sidewalk level. The bike lanes proposed to the committee would be separated from the street by parked cars. While those against including the lanes have argued they would pose a danger to cyclists and pedestrians on Main Street, proponents have said these bike lanes would increase cyclist safety and encourage avid bikers who might be hesitant to ride downtown.
And as the committee headed into its decision, both sides echoed these points.
Keene resident Connie Joyce urged councilors to move against bicycle infrastructure on Main Street, stating that there are enormous safety issues that could arise.
“Both the bike operators and the car drivers are at risk,” she said. “Drivers are preoccupied. Our local population is graying, some drivers have slow reaction time.”
Joyce argued that more bike lanes could mean more cyclists downtown and possibly more bicycle-related automobile accidents.
“We cannot risk killing people,” she added.
City resident Jim Sterling responded that Joyce’s concerns for cyclist safety are good points in favor of bike lanes, which he thinks could reduce dangers to bikers.
“Whether you vote for bike lanes or not, there will still be some perils out on the road; we’re just trying to move the perils [away] from downtown,” he said.
Other proponents of bicycle lanes have argued that their addition to the downtown project could improve the city’s chances at obtaining competitive grants to fund the construction.
Public Works Director Kurt Blomquist told councilors that many grants typically favor projects that include multi-modal transportation, such as bicycle lanes, or other designs aimed at reducing carbon output.
“The issue that comes in is when we’re talking about scoring,” he said. “If you don’t have an element, you don’t receive a score for that. When they total everything up you go lower down the list.”
Greenwald, the MSFI committee’s chairman, was concerned that bike lanes would reduce the number of parking spaces downtown, primarily along the center median as designs have shown.
“If I want the parking in the middle, as much as I might want the bike [lanes], it doesn’t fit,” he said.
According to consulting firm Stantec’s parking summary for the project, the design the MSFI committee recommended Wednesday would result in a net loss of a single parking space downtown. There are currently 167 spaces.
Councilor Roberts also opposed bike lanes because he thinks most Keene residents would prioritize parking spaces.
“I can’t support bike lanes because I don’t think they’re going to be used that much,” he said. “It would be nice to have. The biggest demand downtown is going to be parking for lazy people to get out of their car and go shopping.”
Councilor Filiault didn’t think bike lanes were necessary.
“We’re talking two city blocks here,” he said. “My god, you can live without it, you can get to Keene. And if someone can’t manage to get to Keene on a bike, they probably shouldn’t be pedaling.”
On the opposite side of the argument, Councilor Williams, a cyclist himself, stated that he thinks Keene doesn’t “support bicycles particularly well.”
“The cars get the special privilege, and somehow that 167th parking spot, that’s got to be a need not a want, but a bike lane that will keep people safe, that will keep my child from riding in traffic, that’s a want not a need,” he said.
Williams then proposed amending the committee’s recommendation to include protected bike lanes. After it was seconded by Workman, the amendment failed with only Williams and Workman voting in favor.
Following this vote, Williams also proposed an amendment that would change the layout of Central Square by creating a wedge of green space connecting it to the north end near The Stage and Life is Sweet, while also keeping traffic signals.
“We want to have Central Square be an accessible place where people can go,” he said. “There’s a configuration here that’s figured out how to get some more real estate out of downtown, and that’s gold, and we should not be giving that up.”
William’s amendment was not seconded and thus was not taken to a vote.
According to the latest estimates from Stantec, the design as recommended by the MSFI committee would result in an overall project cost of around $14.1 million. The design proposed by Williams would cost approximately $14.9 million.
City Manager Elizabeth Dragon has told The Sentinel that the impact the project will have on taxpayers is still unclear, and this is dependent on how much money the city is able to tap through grants, bonds and other financial resources.
The city council’s next meeting is scheduled for June 1 at 7 p.m., at City Hall.
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