Amherst considers creation of transportation, parking commission

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 02, 2023

AMHERST — Hearings on utility poles taking place across multiple meetings and requests for speed humps, new sidewalks and resurfacing of roads can be both time-consuming for the Town Council and lead to uncertainty for residents and applicants.

While a Transportation Advisory Committee is in place to provide recommendations to the Town Council, as the keeper of the public way, Town Manager Paul Bockelman has presented the Town Council with the concept of creating a Transportation and Parking Commission that would have more oversight on use of the public way, and that could implement and direct changes to roads and sidewalks.

Part of the idea stems from confusion about requests that come to Town Hall, such as for paving a street or making a road one-way, or installing stop signs.

“There’s been a lot of frustration with our residents about where does this go,” Bockelman said.

This has prompted some to use the capital request mechanism to seek money, or provide oral and written feedback for the town manager’s goals. Instead, there could be better planning around transportation and parking matters.

“I recommend that the Town Council consider establishing a Transportation and Parking Commission that would be charged with making policy decisions on transportation and parking issues and reviewing and approving staff recommendations for changes to the public way,” Bockelman wrote.

Members of the Town Council had mixed reactions to the idea.

“I think this is a way to channel the expertise that is in our town as it pertains to road safety and transportation needs and all of that,” said District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne.

“I generally like this concept,” said District 1 Councilor Michele Miller, noting that such a commission could answer technical and engineering questions that councilors might not have the skills to do.

At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke, who served on the charter commission, though, said she would not be supportive of an extensive overhaul, as it might strip the council entirely of its oversight of the public ways, and dramatic changes could be made by those who are not elected.

“I’m concerned there is a push to remove the council’s role in government as a whole, particularly with this,” Hanneke said. “That really concerns me that we’re trying to stop the council from doing what the council was elected to do.”

Similarly, District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub said that major decisions could be made in this manner. “My concern was that it was delegating a major responsibility of the council,” Taub said.

Councilors gave unanimous direction for Bockelman to draft a charge for the new commission by the end of October. In doing so, the councilors rejected pursuing an immediate review of the proposal through the Governance Organization and Legislation Committee.

Council President Lynn Griesemer noted that Bockelman’s proposal was spurred, in part, by the recent request from the Cushman Scott Children’s Center on Henry Street, which has called on the town to make immediate changes to the road and a nearby intersection to make it safer for parents as they drop off children and for staff who park their vehicles and then cross the street.

Bockelman said many cities have decision-making authorities where the elected executive body is not the keeper of the public way.

Some or all transportation or parking issues in the public way might be delegated to the new commission, similar to how Board of License Commissioners handles all liquor, common victualer and food cart licenses, and also holds hearings when there are infractions.

“Our experience with that is it’s been very successful and very well-run and very efficient,” Bockelman said.

At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg, who previously served on the Select Board before the town adopted a new charter in 2018, said his colleagues should recognize that the current system is not working well, and that it is apt to cite the Board of License Commissioners as a model. He recalls the Select Board taking a tremendous amount of time related to liquor licenses, including hearings when there were violations.

“I really feel like we have a broken system, and what we need is a process to talk about what the options are to fix that broken system,” Steinberg said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.