OLEAN — Though in it’s early stages, North Union Street’s $8.85 million overhaul has already caught the eye of one federal lawmaker as an example of what can happen to a stagnant downtown with some federal investment.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., visited Olean late Monday afternoon to tout two pieces of federal legislation she’s supporting — Pedestrian Safety Act of 2014 and Safe Streets Act of 2014 — that would help other communities across the state do more to reinvigorate their own downtowns.
“Our state is filled with beautiful, old cities that are working hard to come up with ways to revitalize their downtowns,” Sen. Gillibrand said. “Everyone wants to bring in foot traffic that will inject much-needed cash in our economies. My belief is that cities across New York will look to replicate Walkable Olean as they explore ways to make their communities more inviting and pedestrian friendly.”
The Pedestrian Safety Act would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop new standards for the bumpers and hoods of motor vehicles to reduce their impact on pedestrians; would make more pedestrian safety projects eligible for full federal funding, incentivizing states to do more of these projects; and would make pedestrian public awareness campaigns eligible for funding through the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program.
The Safe Streets Act would change the way federally funded roads are planned, designed and built, ensuring new roads are able to accommodate travelers of all ages and abilities, including drivers, transit passengers, bicyclists and pedestrians, much like how the North Union streetscape project is envisioned.
Both pieces of legislation have already passed through the Senate and should go before the House of Representatives by the end of the year.
“When people think about pedestrian safety initiatives, they want to ensure that our streets are safe for everyone, including our children, seniors and those with disabilities,” Sen. Gillibrand said. “When we have good, safe walkways, we’ll have far fewer pedestrian injuries and deaths.”
Olean Police Chief Jeff Rowley agreed with that assessment.
“(North Union’s overhaul) should increase the safety for our residents and the visitors who come to our city,” he said.
He pointed to several components of the project — like reducing the number of traffic lanes, slowing down North Union’s speed limit and improvements to the downtown shopping district — as ones that other communities could implement.
“This whole project really ups the level of safety in our downtown,” the chief said.
The senator noted that downtown walkability projects like Olean’s may also serve as a means to jump-start a local economy.
“No matter where you are in this country, when people shop, they want to feel safe, they want to be able to browse, look at storefronts and spend their money,” she said. “... but when roads are unsafe and cars, not people, are the focal point in a commercial street, it’s more difficult for people to come and shop.”
The senator delivered her remarks at Belle Ruche Bridal Boutique, a bridal shop in the 100 block of the downtown shopping district. A few blocks south, crews continued work on the first phase of North Union’s overhaul — a $130,000 upgrade to the street’s only railroad crossing, near Whitney Avenue. Work on phase one of the project began several weeks ago and is slated for completion around the end of the month.
Crews will return to North Union in the spring to begin the next phases of downtown Olean’s overhaul, working to replace or reline underground utility lines, install a center median and reduce the street from four lanes to two, among other upgrades. They’ll do the same during summer 2016 from the other side of the railroad tracks going south to North Union’s intersection with State Street.
North Union’s makeover is funded by a $6.5 million federal transportation grant, as well as a mixture of state, local and private monies.
Sen. Gillibrand’s efforts to help other communities like Olean see a financial shot in the arm from the federal government received an endorsement from Belle Ruche’s owner, Susan Austin. Ms. Austin offered words on what North Union’s overhaul means for the community.
“The North Union Street renovation project is very important to small businesses, such as mine and every other business along this street. This renovation will not only improve business for us, but in all the surrounding area, too,” Ms. Austin said. “I grew up in a local business family ... so I can see what Olean can be and hopefully what it will be.”
(Contact reporter Christopher Michel at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @OTHChris)