Tom Joyce Staff Reporter
September 6, 2013
Though not a tale of two cities, it was certainly a tale of two public hearings Thursday night when citizens were generally supportive of a proposed Mount Airy pedestrian plan that had been lambasted last month.
That turnaround was actually the result of a continuation of a hearing from the city board of commissioners’ last meeting on Aug. 15. The decision was made then to extend it to their next meeting Thursday night, since the $31,500 plan prepared by a consultant had just been released and citizens hadn’t had sufficient time to review the 66-page document.
The extra time apparently made a difference, with about 10 citizens speaking Thursday night — who while not embracing the document in its entirety expressed support for some of its recommendations for new sidewalks and other amenities. There was an overall sentiment for improving safety conditions for the city’s walkers and bikers.
“There is no such thing as a perfect plan,” said one hearing speaker, Chad Tidd, owner-operator of Chick-fil-A on Rockford Street, near one focal point of the plan: the busy U.S. 52-U.S. 601 intersection. “That’s the face of the community,” Tidd said.
This site is among seven key areas around town recommended for pedestrian-friendly safety enhancements in the plan formulated by Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc. During the first part of the hearing last month, the idea of crossing the four-lane U.S. 52 on foot was deemed unrealistic.
But that wasn’t the case Thursday night.
“I’d like to be able to walk from the hospital to Wendy’s or even Chick-fil-A,” said another speaker, Dr. Bill Refvem, a local orthopedic surgeon who’s an avid cyclist. “I’d like to see it more accessible,” Refvem added of the U.S. 52-U.S. 601 intersection.
That was echoed by Laura Nester, who addressed aspects of the pedestrian study, including the U.S. 52 situation. She also mentioned Northern Hospital of Surry County, saying folks who work or visit there have a limited number of restaurant options that can be reached by foot.
“Crossing 52 is very, very difficult, but I have seen people do it,” Nester said.
But when he had his turn at the podium, Albert Marcinkevicius said he believed a pedestrian walkover is best for that location, although the cost would be much higher than what’s recommended.
“It’s like a pinball machine,” Marcinkevicius said of traffic conditions on U.S. 52. “People don’t pay attention to the speed limit.”
Installation of high-visibility crosswalks, pedestrian heads (which provide special types of travel indications specifically for controlled foot traffic) and raised-concrete pedestrian refuge islands are among the recommendations for U.S. 52.
Similar improvements are eyed for other locations targeted in the plan. These include the intersection of Renfro and Pine streets at Reeves Community Center (another pedestrian problem area where the DOT already is slated to make changes), North Main Street at First Baptist Church, East Pine Street at Riverside Drive, the intersection of Newsome/Carter Street at U.S. 52, West Pine Street at the Emily B. Taylor Greenway and West Lebanon Street at Grace Street.
Another plan recommendation calls for filling in gaps in the city’s existing sidewalk network, and adding sidewalks where none exist now.
That was also an area of focus at Thursday night’s hearing.
In the case of U.S. 52, “once you get across it, you don’t have sidewalks,” said J.C. Short. But, Short added, “If you go through town, you see a lot of empty sidewalks.”
Yet others said new sidewalks are a matter of safety.
Blanton Youell, who lives off Old Springs Road, used words such as “wild” and “crazy” to describe conditions on that street, where Millennium Charter Academy is located. He described the ordeal his family faced when relocating there, with movers having to place safety cones on the street to unload items.
“Three different cars hit those cones,” Youell recalled.
He said sidewalks on Old Springs Road would remedy such problems, which Bill Pendleton, another citizen, seconded.
Pendleton, who grew up on Old Springs Road, said during the hearing that sidewalks, curbing and guttering should be extended along that road from North Main Street to Riverside Drive.
Meanwhile, Carol Burke, a property owner on West Lebanon Street, spoke in favor of more sidewalks along that route, for the safety of residents and students of the nearby Mount Airy High School. That includes track and cross country team members who use West Lebanon Street, Burke said.
Much concern was voiced at the August meeting about the cost of suggested improvements, which surfaced again Thursday night.
The pedestrian plan recommends 30 miles of new sidewalks and 13.3 miles of shared paths for walkers and cyclists, which alone would cost an estimated $20 million — not counting the other improvements.
Some of the hearing speakers said money is not the only consideration, however.
“I’m offended when people are so concerned about the bottom line,” Pendleton said. When considering what’s best for the future, “there’s a whole lot more to it than money,” he added.
Nester also cited the cost of sidewalks and shared paths, saying it “seems astronomical,” but are much less expensive than highways themselves. “It truly pales in comparison to what is put into roads.” Nester said elements other than just the expense should be weighed by officials, including the value a pedestrian and biking infrastructure adds to the community.
She also said the presence of streets should not override the ability of walkers and bikers to access key locations in town. Nester supports the pedestrian plan to help more people take advantage of the city’s assets.
“I know that people will use these features and facilities if they have an opportunity to do so,” she said.
Tidd, the chick-fil-A official, said he sees the plan as a guide to help Mount Airy better “leverage its assets,” and allow the city to be creative with them.
The commissioners are expected to take official action on the pedestrian plan at their next meeting on Sept. 19.
Allen Burton, a longtime city resident who spoke during the public hearing, said he is confident the commissioners will do what’s right for Mount Airy.
John Pritchard, a citizen who attacked the plan last month, again spoke Thursday night and despite the support for it by the majority of speakers, questioned whether they represent a cross-section of local citizens.
“Not all of us are bikers or walkers,” Pritchard said. “Maybe we should be, but we’re not.” He suggested that most people in town are not in favor of the pedestrian plan, and expressed skepticism to the large audience Thursday night concerning the fact so many people showed up in support:
“Where were you folks (last month)?”
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or firstname.lastname@example.org.