Sidewalk audit shows walkability could be better in Bennington

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BENNINGTON >> This town may not be such a welcoming place for those who are disabled, according to a woman speaking to the Select Board Monday about a sidewalk audit done in June.

"I feel unwelcome," said Maggie Bernstein, a volunteer at the Vermont Center for Independent Living, which worked on the report with the American Association of Retired Persons. "I feel isolated from the community at large. It's very hard for me to get around, and the report that we have written, and I am a volunteer of VCIL, the report we have written is dry until you attach it to the meaning for the people who live here and the quality of life we may not be entitled to."

Bernstein said she has been living in Bennington for five years. She had taught at Community College of Vermont on Main Street for eight years and before she became disabled and moving here, thought it a nice place to walk around.

"I loved getting around town," she told the board. "I used to go to Alldays and Onions from CCV for lunch, I used to go to South Street (Cafe) for coffee in the afternoon. I could just take a walk on Main Street and look at the shop windows and just get some fresh air. That was before. When I became disabled and realized that I needed to move, I chose Bennington because I was so charmed by coming here, teaching, and I have been harshly disappointed."

She said the crossing light at the Four Corners gives people 26 seconds to make it across the street.

"I can't walk across that street without great fear," she said. "That's unfortunate, and I'm not alone. I am part of the disabled community in this town which is represented by 20 percent of the population. That's a whole bunch of us who are being kept back from things that should be pleasant in our lives."

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The pavement on the south side of Main Street is uneven and presents a tripping hazard, meaning she cannot focus on the shop windows as she would like to.

Parking is another obstacle, she said. As a person who is disabled, she has to park her car close to events in order to easily access them.

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Tracy Dorman, of VCIL, said while she does not live in Bennington, like many with a disability, she works, shops, and plays here.

"I'm very proud of this report," she said. "There's a lot of work involved in this report, and I hope the recommendations are taken seriously, and that persons with disabilities, or ADA accessibility, is a forethought in your future projects. And as your budget allows, I would like that to be a priority for the Town of Bennington. I plan to be a community member going forward and visitors to our community, the more accessibility there is available the more they are going to come and stay."

Town Manager Stuart Hurd said the board will take the report and use it when it comes time to budget and plan road and sidewalk projects. He said in some places, because federal funds are involved, federal design specifications have to be used. This came up in a discussion about seams in sidewalks which present problems for people in motorized wheelchairs. Gage Street resident, Mike Bethel, said the gaps do not appear problematic for a person without a wheelchair, but for those that have them they shake the chair a great deal and caused them to wear out faster.

"They survey indicated there's some good stuff out there, and there's some stuff that needs to be worked on," said Charlie Murphy, of VCIL.

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According to the report, the Main Street sidewalk east of the Four Corners becomes progressively more difficult. The streets also become wider, thus taking longer to cross, and the sidewalks themselves are uneven. Crosswalks are also worn out and hard to see.

Hurd said the town has grappled for years with keeping crosswalks visible, trying different materials to see which ones last the longest.

The report indicates that Pleasant Street, which is home to a senior center and bus service, could use improvements in terms of walkability. The marble sidewalk on Pleasant Street is uneven and slippery when wet.

The report recommends that crosswalk signals be audited for volume, that possible lighting at crosswalks be assessed, that there be a restripe plan for crosswalks, put crosswalks every 300 feet on Main Street and North Street, increase the cross time at the Four Corners, create a repair and maintenance plan for sidewalk surfaces, draft designs for narrowing the crossing distances at certain locations, create an inventory of public parking spaces and bring access routes into compliance with regulations.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at 802-447-7567, ext. 115.


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