LINCOLN – Crumbling sidewalks are only the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to long-term maintenance issues on Lincoln’s streetscapes, said resident Bill McManus, appearing before the Town Council on Monday.
Holding up poster boards with photos of areas in desperate need of repair, McManus said the time to act is now.
The council called a special meeting to address the sole topic of sidewalk maintenance with Director of Public Works Michael Gagnon.
Councilor Ken Pichette said he was awakened to the roadside maintenance issues back in 2016 by former Breeze Publisher Tom Ward, who noticed a buildup of trash and litter during his commute from Cumberland to Lincoln.
The Breeze’s Yellow Bag Day cleanup was expanded to Lincoln in response. Since then, additional volunteer-based programs have been created, including cleanups hosted by the Lincoln Conservation Commission and other community groups.
The roadside cleanups, along with an increase in residents enjoying time outdoors, has focused more attention than ever on the state of Lincoln’s sidewalks.
“I personally found that a lot of the sidewalks are pretty much impassable,” Pichette said. Calling a meeting to discuss the issues “isn’t about attacks on anyone,” he said, but about brainstorming solutions for the future.
“I think we all want to have an outcome we can be proud of here in Lincoln,” he said.
Gagnon detailed how his department functions and some of the issues they face internally. For one, he said, the town’s only brush cutter is failing.
“You can’t get a week of work out of it before it breaks down,” he said, adding that it would cost upwards of $75,000 to replace.
Manpower is another issue. In a department of 20 to 25 employees, a handful are available for regular maintenance, including clearing litter and debris. That includes all of the town’s properties, parks and fields, he said.
Pichette asked what can be done about state roads, which he said are responsible for some of the worst situations. Gagnon indicated that the Rhode Island Department of Transportation is also stretched thin.
“It’s difficult to get them to do anything,” he said, and the town is technically responsible for the structural integrity and safety of its sidewalks.
While RIDOT might be happy for Lincoln to take over sidewalk maintenance on state roads, Gagnon said he’s worried about the precedent that might be set. The state is supposed to come in annually, he said.
“I’d be happy if they did it once every five years,” said Councilor Bruce Ogni, noting that most of the complaints he gets are about state roads.
“At the risk of offending naturalists,” said Council President Keith Macksoud, why not spray herbicides into the sidewalk cracks to stop tall weeds from growing?
Gagnon, who has his applicator’s license, said it’s an option, and that the town has done some small-scale spraying, but they haven’t done a widespread application.
Councilor Pam Azar asked if dangerous chemicals could seep into the watershed. Gagnon said it’s unlikely, since Round-Up dries onto the surface. There’s another, less toxic but more expensive, spray option they could explore that “essentially smothers the plant,” he said.
Ogni suggested a “hit list,” where the worst parts of town are compiled by priority. He said he’d also support the installation of cameras to catch culprits who litter and illegally dump materials.
During last Saturday’s Lincoln Conservation Commission cleanup near Front Street, Ogni said he and two other volunteers pulled close to 250 liquor nip bottles on Carrington Street.
“That street needs cameras. I’d love to start hitting some people with fines,” he said, adding that the money from the fines could help pay for new DPW equipment.
Gagnon said there may be an option to install cameras in certain areas when the town switches its streetlights over to LED.
Councilor TJ Russo asked whether Lincoln could require property owners to help maintain the sidewalks along their frontage, picking weeds as they would clear the sidewalk of snow (or else fine them for non-compliance). Gagnon said he hasn’t heard of that being enforced in other nearby communities.
Another suggestion was to roll out a program where local businesses could “adopt” a strip of land to help maintain it.
Asked for his opinion, Gagnon said Lincoln’s DPW would be in better shape with more reliable equipment, a larger staff and a more responsive RIDOT, but there are no easy answers to the problem.
Back in 2017, McManus proposed a four-year plan called Lincoln 2020, a community initiative calling for the beautification of landscapes, the repair of crumbling curbs, and general improvements across town.
With renewed support from the Conservation Commission, McManus is again urging the council to take action and formulate a plan.
The way things are going, McManus said he’s worried about the town’s reputation diminishing.
“Sidewalks have been a problem for years. We need a proactive approach,” he said, holding up a series of photos taken across town. Some of the worst areas for trash and sidewalk issues are in the areas of Walker Street and Smithfield Avenue, he said.
Several residents and members of the Conservation Commission voiced their support for sidewalk and other streetside improvements.
“Why are we waiting for areas to look apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic before we take action?” asked LCC member Stephanie Santos. The community has tried to be part of the solution, but Santos said change starts from the top.