Great Ideas Committee addresses Water Street running, biking safety

Active students, faculty and community members worry that the conditions and lack of sidewalks on Route 43 and Water Street are unsafe. June Han/Photo Editor

College Council’s Great Ideas Committee has recently begun collecting data on the running and biking usage of Water Street/Route 43 by students, faculty, staff and community members. At the moment, the street is narrow and does not have sidewalks. In addition, the small shoulders available for running and biking are falling apart.

According to Sonya Jampel ’19, who is spearheading the efforts, the project to improve the street’s safety and accessibility has two goals. The first facet is improving safety on Water Street. “Williams in general is a pretty active community, but sometimes it can be intimidating to run on Water Street, especially for first-years who are unfamiliar with the traffic flow and geography of the town,” Jampel said. 

Part two of the project would address that issue through the creation and distribution of maps of safe places to run. While the Purple Valley Track Club would likely distribute the maps, primarily to first-years, Jampel hopes that the Purple Bike Coalition could also create a map of safe places to bike. “Williams is over 30 percent varsity athletes, but what about the other 70 percent who also want to be active?” Jampel said.

Jampel emphasized their partnership with Jason Hoch ’95, the Williamstown town manager. “I went to him with the idea and he [said that he’d]  been trying to do that for years, and it would be really helpful if [she] got the Williams students onboard,” she said. 

Given that the road is state owned, they are hoping to find an avenue to improve safety within the town’s limited authority. Currently, the town cannot do much without approval from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MDOT). “If it were a town-owned road it would already be fixed,” Jampel said. 

Additionally, both sides of the road are private land, meaning the town would need permission from various owners if the road were to be expanded to have a wider shoulder or a sidewalk. 

The idea of repaving the road to make it friendlier for physically active members of the College and the community has gone through various proposals since the late 1970s. None of them have succeeded in their ultimate goal, although one did lead to a sign telling cars to watch for bikes on the road. 

“A lot of people have tried in the past and [the proposal] has failed,” Jampel acknowledged. “Luckily this is happening at a really good time in that the state is looking to repave roads in the area and the state.” 

Hoch added that the project “is on the state’s Transportation Improvement Plan; however, it has neither been scheduled for a specific year nor had a cost estimate applied.” Additionally, “I do know from information conversations with [MDOT] that they are just now putting together the specifications for engineers to begin design and public participation for the project,” Hoch said.

According to Jampel, the next step will be to submit and present a proposal to the MDOT, hopefully before spring break. Still, even if the proposal does get approved, the work on the road likely will not be finished until after she graduates.  

To prepre for the presentation and proposal, the Great Ideas Committee created and circulated a survey to get a better idea of the current usage and concerns regarding the road through daily messages. The committee also sent the link to local businesses who could distribute it. As of Sunday, the survey had 623 responses. Only 54 percent (336) of the responses were students at the College, while 119 faculty and staff and 160 community members also responded (some respondents fell in the “other” category). As the survey gained traction, Jampel added questions specifically regarding how concerned people felt about the safety of Water Street and a comment box, where 130 people have left additional remarks. 

The reaction from the town has mostly “been enthusiasm, like, ‘Yes I’m glad that you’re working on this, this is really important,’” Jampel said, noting again that Hoch has been supportive of the committee’s efforts. Despite the mostly positive feedback, Jampel said that there have “also been a lot of responses that say that Williams students need to run more safely, and wear reflective gear, and not run four abreast and run [against traffic]. There were a lot of complaints about Williams students not really using the road safely.”

Other community members fostered concerns about what widening the road would entail. “A few people in the community were concerned about keeping the road scenic, and if you widen the road [to accommodate a sidewalk or a wider shoulder,] then you’re more likely to get cars moving faster,”Jampel said. “In the past, that was what stopped the success of the project – Williams[town] community members saying that [they] like it the way it is.”

Hoch hopes that “they will find a way to enhance safety for all of the users while not over designing something that undermines the unique rural character of [Water Street]. I want us to have a safe corridor,” he said, “but not necessarily at the expense of making it a soulless massive swath of asphalt.” 

Jampel and Hoch hope that this time will be different and that the MDOT will approve the proposal. Additionally, they hope that the partnership between the town and students from the College will continue as the project slowly moves along.