By JOYCE ROWLEY/ecoRI News contributor
NEW BEDFORD — Rep. William Straus, D-Mattapoisett, had good news for the crowd at Fort Taber attending the fourth annual South Coast Bikeway Summit: the transportation bond bill poised to pass into law in the coming weeks carries $370 million for bicycle and pedestrian facilities. Although they will have to share it with the rest of the state over the next five years, local bikeway planners and cyclists were delighted the bill had made it through the House and Senate.
The summit is the South Coast Bikeway Alliance’s annual meeting to update the municipal bikeway planners and cycling advocacy groups on the bikeway’s progress. About 85 people attended the recent meeting, representing communities from Fall River to Wareham.
The event’s featured speaker, Dave Watson, executive director of MassBike, said the transportation bond included $130 million to fully fund the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Priority 100 projects — the top 100 projects in the Bay State Greenway plan. Twenty million dollars would go to the South Coast Bikeway, of which $19 million would complete the last leg of the bikeway, from Mattapoisett to Bourne, a 19-mile predominantly off-road path.
Both Straus, who chairs the Joint House Transportation Committee, and Watson warned against a possible referendum on next fall’s ballot that would repeal gas tax increases that are funding the bond bill. Straus said that up to $2 billion of the $13.7 billion transportation bond would be lost if the referendum succeeds.
“A cut in gas tax increases means we will lose transportation projects,” Straus said. “It’s not rocket science.”
Watson said the South Coast was fortunate to have state representatives and local officials backing the bikeway.
Mayor Jonathan Mitchell, a strong advocate of bicycle paths and lanes, spoke about the national trend of creating viable bicycling trail systems in cities, and said efforts in New Bedford were following that trend.
“There are so many good reasons to encourage biking: exercise, less pollution, reducing obesity,” he said. “Cities that bike tend to be happier cities.”
The New Bedford Harbor Path on the hurricane barrier is making progress, according to Mitchell. When finished, it will be the longest waterfront public access path in the region, he said.
In Fall River, the city’s bike committee is supported by the new Fall River Bicycle Commission, which is comprised of officials from the municipal planning, engineering, police and traffic departments. This new commission is tasked with incorporating local bicycle access where possible.
Dave Pearson, who is chair of the Fall River Bike Committee, outlined the 12-year history of the Quequechan River Regional Bike Path. Now nearing construction of its second and third phases, that trail is a north-south link on the South Coast Bikeway.
Citing the many naysayers at the outset of the project, Pearson said, “Ignore the people who say it can’t be done. Dare to dream.”
“Down here on the South Coast, we have a hidden jewel,” said Bob Espindola, president of the South Coast Bikeway Alliance. “We’d like to see people use this as a destination.”
The alliance, comprised of representatives from each municipal bicycling organization, has been meeting monthly since 2011.
In November 2010, a contingent of cyclists from Fall River and another from New Bedford met at Cornell Pond in North Dartmouth, said Julie Kelly, coordinator for Fall River Mass in Motion. The trip was meant to show that the two cities are really just 10 miles apart, an easy bike ride, she said.
“The next thing you know, we had our first summit in February 2011,” Kelly said.
From that first summit came the goal of piecing together a 50-mile bikeway, running from the Rhode Island-Massachusetts line in Swansea to Bourne, the entryway to Cape Cod. The South Coast Bikeway also will act as a spine route for communities to connect local bicycle trails, paths and lanes.
“We want people to see the best places,” said Sarah Clement, New Bedford Mass in Motion community outreach coordinator. “Maybe they’ll stop on their ride and enjoy our beaches, museums, shopping and dining that each of our communities has to offer.
“That’s why at times the bikeway is direct and at times meandering, so we can show the cyclists, tourists and visitors all we have to offer on the South Coast.”
A Yankee Roundabout
The East Coast Greenway (ECG) will use the South Coast Bikeway as an alternate route to Boston, according to Eric Weis, ECG’s trail program coordinator. The ECG is a member-supported effort to provide a continuous bike path from Key West, Fla., to Calais, Maine. To date, a third of that route has been completed.
Weis presented plans at the March 27 summit to fit the bikeway into the ECG as it travels through Massachusetts. Currently, the ECG leaves Providence and travels north along the Blackstone River Valley bike path to Worcester, then on to Boston. The South Coast Bikeway would make possible a round-trip loop from Providence to Provincetown, and then to Boston by ferry.
Weis said that ECG loops were important features of bike paths, as they helped create a destination ride and a focus for bicycle advocacy. Here, the loop would be called the “Yankee Roundabout.”
“The ECG brings national advertising to the bikeway,” said Bonne DeSousa, alliance secretary and chair of the Friends of the Mattapoisett Recreational Trail. “We see the South Coast as a premiere destination.”