Car Talk: Homer is working to become more friendly to people-powered transit
On Wednesday, Homer Drawdown is having its first meeting of 2023 at the Kachemak Bay Campus. The organization is part of a national grassroots movement working to address the impacts of climate change on a local level.
In 2020, Homer Drawdown’s first project centered on understanding and preserving Homer’s unique peatlands. Now, after a series of community focus groups last year, Drawdown is working with the City of Homer on a number of initiatives to increase non-motorized transportation and pedestrian trail access around town.
This past summer and fall, Homer Drawdown organized volunteers to clear brush and work to connect existing trails into a more cohesive network in the downtown area. For example, the group focused on trailwork to make it possible to walk from above Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith and Love Park along Lee Street, as an alternative to the more heavily-trafficked Pioneer Avenue. Jan Keiser, Homer’s public works director and the city engineer, said that the city is working hard to try and make these new trails accessible year-round.
Making downtown easier to stroll around isn’t always as simple as cutting back brush. Keiser said that while there has been a non-motorized transportation plan on the books in Homer for nearly two decades, progress has at times been slow.
“But now there's massive interest as people are seeing opportunities for health, recreation [and] ease of access,” Keiser said. "[It’s] been very interesting to see that change in culture in the community over time.”
Keiser said that with rising awareness about the role cars play in carbon emissions and increasing community support for pedestrian infrastructure, plans are taking shape. The city has focused on funding for projects designed to have an immediate impact from one year to the next. New sidewalks along Ben Walters and up to the Senior Citizen Center are two projects that are next priorities.
Along with Homer Drawdown, other community groups like Homer Trails Alliance are working outside of the downtown area to make it easier to step onto a trail. Keiser said the city is excited to be collaborating with these volunteer groups to connect and maintain existing trails, as well as to create new ones.
“We really appreciate and do not take for granted the help that these organizations bring to us,” Keiser said.
Julie Engebretson, Homer’s economic development manager — who has worked with the city for 20 years — said whether you want to get your hands dirty, or share a public comment during the planning process, community involvement is crucial.
“We have great ideas, and great, involved citizenry and great planning documents,” she said. “But we've had a harder time actually executing those plans and getting the trails constructed.”
Some of that inertia comes from expense, but there are other hurdles too. Engebretson said that high turnover at the state’s Department of Transportation makes it difficult to build relationships to support longer term projects. Changing existing infrastructure to add bike lanes, for instance, can get complicated quickly as the city navigates changing traffic patterns or state jurisdiction.
Still, some solutions are more straight-forward. Discussions with commercial truckers, pedestrians and cyclists last fall, for example, all called for a more visible way for people to cross Pioneer Avenue. Engebretson hopes that with state DOT approval and funding, the city will be able to install a crosswalk with a flashing light at the intersection of Pioneer and Svedlund.
“We have more common goals across our community than maybe we realized,” Engebretson said.
Dale Banks, the owner of Loopy Lupine Distribution, and an organizer with Homer Drawdown, said that another way to make the city safer and more accessible is through education and outreach. Cycling around Homer, for instance, riders often have to venture outside of designated bike lanes, so Drawdown is working to help drivers and cyclists learn how to share the road.
Bikes are allowed to take up a lane of traffic when they need to, Banks said, and drivers should be patient, since sidewalks and shoulders may not be passable with ice and snow — but cyclists should also leave sidewalks to pedestrians when it is safe to be on the road. He reminded cyclists to wear bright clothing and lights, especially in these dark winter months.
These kinds of insights helped Drawdown members pull together a collaboration with the City of Homer and the Department of Transportation, who now aim to build a park-and-bike lot at the junction of East End and McClay roads, which could help more people access the East End bike trail into downtown
Banks said these are just a few of the ways that Drawdown is working to chip away at the thorny issue of carbon emissions through small-scale interventions.
“These projects, although they're ostensibly designed to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, they're really community projects that will make this place a better place to live for everybody,” Banks said.
Little changes can make a big difference, like making maps and information about existing trails more readily available to the public.
Satchel Pondolfino, who is the lower inlet organizer with Cook Inletkeeper, and a Drawdown committee member, said that coming to the first monthly meeting of the year is a great way to get involved. The in-person meeting will be held in room 202 on the Kachemak Bay Campus on Wednesday, Jan. 18, with soup and bread starting at 5:30 p.m. prior to the meeting getting started at 6.
“We really just want to empower anyone who's particularly passionate about any non-motorized transportation project,” Pondolfino said.
Pondolfino is excited that many of the longer-term infrastructure goals that Drawdown volunteers are working on now align so well with the city’s goals. She explained the city is currently revamping its master transportation plan, which is expected to be available for public comment in March.
“So a lot of the projects that we talked about are more long term, but they're getting on the to-do list which is really exciting,” she said.
Working with Drawdown to make Homer a more enjoyable place to walk and bike is a way to build a more vibrant and healthy community, as well as reducing carbon emissions, she added.
“It's definitely been a source of hope and connection when the last few years have been kind of dark and isolating.”