End the Covid-19 Parking Restriction
By Gary Tolley November 5, 2020
ASHBURNHAM, MA- In 2020, governments all over the world have gone out of their way to discourage people from enjoying the outdoors. This spring, as the weather began to warm in the United States and people were desperate to get outside, many parks and beaches were simply closed out of concern for Covid-19. Areas that remained open often had parking severely restricted.
Mount Watatic, a small mountain in Ashburnham, MA ideal for families, did not escape the parking prevention plan. In April, Massachusetts posted NO PARKING signs along Route 119 near the two authorized parking areas, and police started issuing parking tickets.
Parking at the mountain has always been inadequate on peak weekend days. The lot across from Old Pierce Road holds only 20-25 cars, depending on the number of SUVs. The other area, a small pullover area about a mile to the east on 119, holds about 16 cars. This simply isn’t enough parking for an entire mountain.
For generations, hikers have safely and responsibly parked their cars on the wide shoulders of 119 near the trailheads. On beautiful weekend days it would not be uncommon to see 100 to 200 cars parked along the road. Soon after Covid-19 hit, though, parking along Route 119 was prohibited. Predictably, this parking clampdown was sold to the public as being necessary for safety.
In an April 7, 2020 article in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, police indicated that there had been “many close calls over the years with people getting out of their cars and crossing the street.” That’s a vague standard to justify the clampdown.
While parking along a busy road is not ideal, it is not necessarily dangerous. I parked along Route 119 for over 30 years without issue, and never once saw a “close call.”
Has the parking restriction made things safer?
I decided to find out. On Saturday, October 10, 2020 I parked at Ashby’s Elementary School (thanks Ashby!) and rode my bike west on 119 to the mountain in a quest for the truth. This was Columbus Day Weekend, the busiest and most beautiful time of year for the mountain.
It was a warm, breezy afternoon and the foliage was spectacular as I pedaled past Watatic Pond. Approaching the parking area I marveled at the deep blue sky and the stunning colors of the leaves – brilliant yellows, deep reds, and a long row of bright orange parking tickets on car windshields. Ugh.
It was 2:00pm and Ashburnham’s parking patrol had already made at least one sweep. Hikers that didn’t find space in the parking area had managed to park safely off the road, but would nonetheless be greeted by a fluorescent orange ticket under their wiper blade after their hike.
The trail at this parking area is an abandoned utility line. It is steep and goes straight up the mountain, which makes it boring. The footing is tricky and unforgiving with many loose rocks – certainly not ideal for young kids or beginners. The much nicer trail (with a beaver dam, stream crossing, giant boulders and varied and interesting terrain) starts at the parking lot a mile to the west.
Pedaling to the lot I passed a number of families hoofing it along 119. These folks had elected to hike the nicer trail, but with no parking spaces available in the lot they were forced to park a mile east and walk along Route 119 back to the trailhead. Eliminating the parking along 119 has increased the number of pedestrians walking along this busy “highway.”
Just before the parking lot I stopped on the extra wide shoulder where hikers have parked safely for decades. No cars were parked here though. A giant electronic sign past the trailhead threatened that cars would be towed. Another electronic sign was malfunctioning.
Interestingly, in 2019 all of this parking (around 50 spots) was dramatically improved, presumably at taxpayer expense. Truckloads of crushed asphalt were brought in to level the parking and fill in deep muddy ruts. Alas, after only a few months the authorities decided to declare these perfectly safe parking spots more lethal than rat poison.
At the parking lot across from Old Pierce Road I noticed something I had never seen before at Mount Watatic – people pulling over to drop off hikers. Hikers are a resilient bunch, and will always find a way to get trail time.
The lot was filled to the brim, of course, with people waiting for a spot to park.
There is limited parking along Old Pierce Road, but this means crossing the busy road, which, again, was a problem the parking restriction was supposed to address.
Raking It In
It was an extremely dry spring and summer in Massachusetts, resulting in a severe drought. With the new parking restriction along Route 119 though, the Town of Ashburnham was able “make it rain” by issuing a slew of $25.00 parking tickets, providing a solid boost to the bottom line.
According to the town, a total of 403 tickets were issued near the mountain from April 1 – October 29, including on Old Pierce Road. Assuming all of this ticket revenue is collected, $10,075.00 (and counting) will be deposited in Ashburnham’s general fund.
As I pedaled back to my car I felt bad for all the innocent parents being clipped for $25 for the crime of parking safely along the road and enjoying time outdoors with their children. I also felt bad for the families who may decide not to explore Mount Watatic on a beautiful day because of the limited parking. Precious memories that will never happen…
Mount Watatic is a wonderful place that has always been free. Free to hike, free to park, free to enjoy. Having to pay a parking ticket (effectively an admission fee) changes that. It’s upsetting.
Based on what I saw, the parking restriction is a failure. People are still crossing the road, and without question more people with young children and dogs are now walking along it. I don’t think anyone is any safer.
Ticketing cars that are parked well off the road and not causing a safety issue creates a bad optic for the police. It looks like a money grab. A better solution might be to allow parking along 119 while reducing the speed limit near the mountain.
An expansion of both the parking lot and designated parking area is needed, though. We should be encouraging people to enjoy places like Mount Watatic, not discouraging them by limiting parking. Let’s ask our elected officials to improve the parking situation and make Mt. Watatic free to enjoy.
This article is now over. Go take a hike!
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