A streetscape project on West Street got the extra money it needed after a protracted argument at the Board of Aldermen meeting Monday.
The board ultimately voted to use $30,000 from the Zamias fund to close a funding gap in the project, which will install bump-outs in the area of Cottage Street and Court Square. The project came up short when bids came in over the initial estimate — $110,000 and $80,000, respectively — and Rutland Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Brennan Duffy asked the city to cover the difference.
Bump-outs are also known as sidewalk extensions or “pedestrian peninsulas.”
Alderman Chris Ettori said the project failed the test he likes to apply to requests for money from the Zamias fund, which was created with impact fees paid to the city by the owners of Diamond Run Mall and had begun to dwindle in recent years. Duffy said with certain expenditures having been paid back into the fund, the balance was $130,000 and the city is expecting a balloon payment of roughly $500,000 in 2020 — though the mall can break that up into annual payments of $100,000.
“If this is the last $30,000, is this the highest and best use for that money?” Ettori asked. “I would argue that it isn’t. ... People don’t generally cross there to get into downtown. It’s a bit high up.”
Ettori said that while he supports the bumpout at Cottage Street, he thinks the more easterly one is unnecessary and risks impeding traffic. He said the city could find numerous uses for $30,000 that would be of greater benefit to downtown.
“We need to be in charge of the Zamias fund and use it wisely for projects,” he said. “It is not just a catch-all for when we don’t have the money for something.”
Alderwoman Rebecca Mattis backed Ettori, saying that she generally supports pedestrian safety projects but questions how much safer the bump-out would make crossing a multi-lane road. Also, she said she would like to see some of the project’s other backers — organizations including the RRA, the Downtown Rutland Partnership and Rutland Blooms contributed to the largely grant-funded project — stepping up to help cover the $30,000.
“I don’t think it’s our responsibility to use Zamias funds to fill this hole,” she said.
Further dissent came from Alderwoman Lisa Ryan, who said she asked for evidence that bump-outs improved traffic safety but had not received any. Alderman Thomas DePoy said he was uncomfortable dipping into reserve funds for a project like this when so many city roads desperately need repaving. He also questioned the positioning of the eastern bump-out, and he preferred to spend Zamias money to more directly benefit downtown businesses.
“I just don’t see using Zamias money for street projects,” DePoy said. “I just don’t think bump-outs on West Street do anything for downtown businesses.”
DePoy said anyone seeking to cross West Street at Court Square would be better served going the rest of the way up the hill and crossing between Five Guys and Main Street Park.
“It’s a good crossing,” he said. “It’s one of the best crossings in the city.”
Alderman Matt Whitcomb told Ryan he found a study of a similar project in Oregon saying bump-outs reduced the number of vehicles that went by a waiting pedestrian without yielding. Alderman William Gillam repeatedly argued in favor of the project, saying it was a longstanding feature of the city’s gateway improvement plan.
“This is not a new thing,” he said. “We’ve been at this for 20 years.”
Mayor David Allaire, who described himself as a “frequent pedestrian,” said the increase of activity in Main Street Park was creating tremendous pedestrian traffic and that other bump-outs in the city were placed amid worries about traffic difficulties that never materialized.
“It’s hard to put a price tag on people’s safety,” he said.
Ultimately, Ettori, DePoy and Ryan voted no while the remainder of the board voted “yes,” with the exception of absent Alderwoman Melinda Humphrey.