Margaret Rogers was a slight figure standing in the middle of Williamsville’s Main Street in her hand-knit scarf and pink mittens. Four lanes of traffic zoomed behind and before her. Standing in the center turning lane with two bags of hotdogs, cookies and other groceries, she gingerly made her way across to the Village Square Apartments.
“I used to have a car, but I’ll be 90 years old in March, and I didn’t think it was safe to drive anymore,” she said.
It’s questionable whether she’s truly safer walking.
That’s why the village is pushing a new initiative called Picture Main Street that officials hope will significantly improve the pedestrian experience at a relatively modest cost.
Among the proposed changes:
• “Bulb out” protruding curb extensions at intersections.
• A new pedestrian island.
• A designated, mid-block pedestrian traffic signal in the village center.
• Plans for more trees and benches.
• Improved parking behind buildings.
• More welcoming landmark entrances into the village on the east and west ends of Main.
There also are related plans to transform a glorified driveway between the Williamsville Library and Village Hall into a grassy pocket park and remake Spring Street and the property around the historic Williamsville Water Mill into a true village square.
Main Street is a major east-west artery for Amherst. It sees competing traffic from people trying to get to and from office parks, schools and homes. Many drivers use Main Street as a non-toll Thruway bypass between the mainline Thruway and Transit Road. Tractor-trailers and oversized vehicles occasionally rumble by Williamsville’s boutique shops and salons.
On Oct. 1, a tractor-trailer rolling down Main Street clipped a town platform lift truck, sending two town workers to the hospital with multiple fractures.
Past village leaders have made repeated attempts to calm traffic and make Main Street more pedestrian-friendly since the road was widened in the 1990s, but to little avail.
Mayor Brian Kulpa said he knows there’s no way to “unwiden” Main Street, but there are ways to make it more physically attractive to walkers and to make the road-crossing experience a little less death-defying.
“The countdown is funny,” said Kulpa, quickly crossing Main as the walk-don’t walk pedestrian signal counted down 20 seconds. “If you see someone with a stroller, it’s almost like a dare: Are they going to make it?”
Williamsville would be easier to compare to other charming comercial districts that dot the region if it weren’t for the fact that it looks like a five-lane highway is running down the middle of it. Route 5 runs through both the village and the town and carries from 35,000 to nearly 50,000 vehicles a day.
The changes proposed in Picture Main Street would be good news for Rogers, who walks from her senior apartment building to shop and eat several times a week. She said she’s regularly scolded for her midblock street crossings, but she counts on her sense of timing and her willingness to “live dangerously.”
“God is with me,” she said.
Village resident Amy Colvin, who walks bulldogs Lily and Lola down the street nearly every day, expressed similar thoughts.
“The only thing I hate is that it’s just so busy,” she said.
The Picture Main Street effort has been in the works since the village’s community plan was adopted in 2010, Kulpa said. Committees and subcommittees have been meeting monthly to move different aspects of the project along, with some folks focusing on what village residents want and need, and some focusing on how the village is going to find ways to pay for it.
If all goes as hoped, Kulpa said, the plan will be finalized next month and will receive Village Board approval in January.
Committee member Maria McPeak, manager of the Irishman Pub and Eatery between Cayuga and Mill streets, said people who sit on her restaurant patio occasionally get prime seats for viewing accidents and near-accidents with both cars and walkers.
This year’s Halloween costume parade in Williamsville was even delayed 20 minutes because it took that long for families to get from one side of the street to the other.
“Which is ridiculous,” she said.
Seven lanes of cars separate pedestrians from one sidewalk and the next – four lanes of moving traffic, one center turning lane and two parking lanes that are regularly and illegally used by drivers as right-turn lanes.
Rounded curb extensions, which would extend into the shoulder parking lanes and reduce the pedestrian walking path curb-to-curb by about 10 feet, are one way to make crossing safer and easier, Kulpa said. The village also would like to narrow the existing lanes so drivers feel less free to travel down Main at near-highway speeds during nonpeak hours.
Curb extensions and lane narrowing won’t ease existing congestion on Main Street. Just the opposite, and that’s likely to create headaches for commuters who already find driving on Main Street difficult.
But if reducing traffic flow by 5 percent or so makes it easier for people to live, shop, work and eat in the village, Kulpa said, that’s a reasonable trade-off.
Curb extensions, the most expensive aspect of the Picture Main Street project, would cost about $3 million and require some kind of state or federal matching grant.
The village also would hope for state assistance in installing a pedestrian-activated traffic signal and crosswalk. The device would be the first of its kind to be installed in the state, Kulpa said.
The signal would be placed on the roadway in front of the Williamsville Library and be accompanied by a dedicated pedestrian “refuge” island where the center turn lane exists now. The state Department of Transportation offered to conduct a study on placement of this type of signal, and Kulpa said he hopes to have the signal installed by the end of next year.
Though Kulpa expects it to take much of next year to line up the funding required to get Picture Main Street fully implemented, he and others pointed out that the village already has successfully undertaken some work on its own.
The village spent about $10,000 and added 56 sidewalk trees through the Main Street core in September. More will be planted with the help of a state grant in the spring.
New design standards to preserve village character and encourage mixed use and pedestrian access on Main Street were also adopted by the board in October.
“We’re not just going to stand by and see this traffic short-circuit our pedestrian traffic,” he said, “and short-circuit our businesses.”