A study of Main Street in Montpelier is among the projects being funded with state grants. File photo by Andrew Nemethy/VTDigger
The state Agency of Transportation announced Wednesday that it has awarded $3.5 million to 14 localities for bicycle and pedestrian projects across the state.
The projects include almost 4,000 feet of sidewalk in Milton along Route 7, where the town has for several years sought to improve pedestrians' ability to navigate recent development.
Officials say adequate sidewalks promote public health and allow Vermonters outside of automobiles to move safely around their communities. Transportation officials say their agency is charged with providing such infrastructure.
"It's the Agency of Transportation, not just the agency of cars," said Jon Kaplan, the agency's bicycle and pedestrian program manager. "Biking and walking are two modes of transportation, and there's been lots of emphasis at the federal level on making a transportation system that works for everybody."
A large portion of Vermonters don't drive, or drive only infrequently, Kaplan said, "so if we build a transportation system just for driving, we're not providing a transportation system for the whole public."
The state received requests for nearly $10 million in this year's round of funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects, Kaplan said.
The state Department of Health studied Milton's Route 7 in 2014 to assess pedestrian safety, and one of the researchers involved said sidewalks are a matter of public health.
"The concern we have about connectivity is that it's sometimes difficult for people to lead a healthy lifestyle if communities aren't designed well," said Ed DeMott, a chronic disease prevention specialist at the Vermont Department of Health. "Our interest is in making the healthy choice the easy choice."
Development since the 1930s has encouraged Americans to use automobiles as their primary mode of transportation, DeMott said, and this emphasis has led to adverse health effects.
The Department of Health takes an interest in pedestrian infrastructure as a result, he said.
The department's approach to the subject "is rooted in the idea that most Americans and most Vermonters don't get the recommended amount of physical activity on a daily basis," he said. Around two-thirds of Americans consider their local streets the best opportunity for walking and other forms of physical exercise, DeMott said.
The Department of Transportation this year awarded funds for sidewalk projects in Hartford, Waitsfield, Colchester, Enosburg Falls, Springfield, Fair Haven, Milton, Hinesburg and Readsboro.
The department also funded a street study in Montpelier and small-scale pedestrian improvements in Rutland, Brattleboro, Groton and Poultney. Most of the awards require localities to pay at least some portion of total construction costs.