GROTON -- Members of the Master Plan Transportation Advisory Group and Trails Committee began discussions on how the town can promote and develop alternative ways of transportation in town.
The object, said Traffic Consultant Gary Hebert, was to identify and prioritize goals that were practical and achievable in the short term as well as long term.
Among the possibilities listed by members of the two committees were the linkage between roadways, paved rail trails and more primitive hiking trails so as to encourage more walking, biking, horseback riding, and any other healthier form of transportation than driving.
Besides being good for the town and its residents, such diversity of transportation -- with its reduced reliance on motorized vehicles -- would also be in line with new federal regulations that seek to promote "development of fully integrated active transportation networks."
According to recently approved guidelines issued by the Department of Transportation (DOT), "the establishment of well-connected walking and bicycling networks is an important component for livable communities."
As a result, any community that seeks to apply for federal funding for transportation projects would have a better chance of being accepted if design plans were consistent with the DOT's goals.
Increasing the likelihood of qualifying for state and federal funding for improvements in the town's transportation network was one of the factors that should be considered in any prioritization of short-term goals, Hebert told members of the two committees at the June 29 meeting.
The Transportation Advisory Group was created by the Planning Board to represent the interests of different parts of the community including business, historic preservation, conservation, public safety, housing, sustainability, open space, transportation and recreation.
The purpose of the advisory groups is to provide information about the town and the hopes and concerns of residents to representatives of the Community Opportunities Group Inc. (COG) for integration in a draft for an updated Master Plan due for completion in March 2011.
After a community forum in May at which members of the public had the opportunity to weigh in on issues involving the Master Plan, members of the various advisory groups have continued to meet, assimilating the new information in ongoing discussions.
It was in that capacity that the Transportation Advisory Group met with the Trails Committee Tuesday to discuss issues anticipating the town's transportation needs for the next 10 years.
Hebert, the Planning Board's consultant on traffic issues, was asked to meet with members to help discern the most appropriate direction to take and what items could be implemented the quickest.
Hebert immediately expressed the need to identify and map all of the walking trails throughout town and then to prioritize places where they could be connected into main thoroughfares and roadways enabling pedestrians and bicyclists to reach as much of the town as possible without the use of automobiles.
Once those connections were identified, members needed to choose key areas where sidewalks could be built that would either strengthen those connections or help to extend transportation systems even farther.
Development of such multiuse transportation systems can be hampered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that all public ways be made accessible to people with disabilities including those in need of wheelchairs. Luckily for town planners and the Trails Committee, there are exceptions. Should making a trail accessible endanger the environment of scenic views, it can be left alone.
About 90 percent of the town's trail system is not wheelchair-accessible.
What could help accessibility, however, is the construction of more sidewalks in town. Agreeing that outside of town center, what sidewalks existed in town were sometimes haphazard in their location, committee members were united in their desire to see connections made so that pedestrians could walk safely from the town center to the Four Corners or to the high school and middle schools.
Selectman Anna Eliot suggested that areas where the town decided that sidewalks were needed should be identified ahead of time so that if land alongside them is subsequently developed, builders could be persuaded to include construction of a sidewalk along the street.
Those attending Tuesday's meeting also identified various town bridges that could be repaired and restored to use to further extend the trail network, including Fitch's Bridge.
Committee member and DPW Director Tom Delaney sounded a note of caution, explaining that relying on anything other than roadways would result in access issues in the winter. He also noted that additional costs could arise for maintenance of many trails that may only be accessible for parts of the year.
Transportation Advisory Committee members were expected to continue discussing the subject, had not scheduled a date as of press- time.