Invite more golf carts downtown

Published 4:57 pm Tuesday, September 1, 2020

The long, hard economic recovery from COVID-19 restrictions on merchants will require creative and intentional decision-making by local governments.

The Town of Smithfield is on the right path with one such policy change: allowing residents of the Cypress Creek and Moonefield neighborhoods to drive their golf carts to downtown.

As we reported last week, the Smithfield Town Council’s Public Safety Committee floated the idea at the council’s meeting last month, with no formal action taken.

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We agree with newly elected Councilwoman Renee Rountree, committee chair, who said the change could boost tourism and revenue while granting a request by residents of the neighborhoods.

“I believe allowing golf carts to safely pass into the downtown corridor would boost meals and sales tax revenue and add to the charm of our community for our residents and guests,” Rountree said. “There are already golf-cart-only parking spots painted downtown, in anticipation of this trend. Of course we will balance this opportunity with safety issues.”

The change would require a couple of waivers from the state. Currently, golf carts can only be driven on roads with a speed limit of 25 mph or lower; both neighborhoods have a 35 mph stretch to get downtown. Another hurdle, affecting only Cypress Creek, is that golf carts are not allowed to cross a road with a speed limit over 35 mph.

Another issue is cart drivers from Cypress Creek would currently encounter a fence between the overpass and the town property near Windsor Castle Park. That issue will have to be taken to the Virginia Transportation Safety Board and negotiated with VDOT, Rountree said.

All of those roadblocks are surmountable, and indeed other communities in Virginia have successfully cleared them.

Rountree said Police Chief Alonzo Howell had spoken to his counterpart in Colonial Beach, which is a golf cart-friendly community. Colonial Beach sought and received waivers for some of the state golf cart rules. She said the Northern Neck town has “not had any increase in safety problems or accidents” since the waivers were implemented.

Downtown merchants, who are still reeling from a near-complete shutdown of commerce earlier this year when the COVID-19 pandemic began, need all the help they can get if Smithfield’s retail economy — historically an important contributor to the community’s overall economic health — is to return to its former vibrance.

Giving residents easy access to downtown shops and eateries is a simple way for local government to encourage and facilitate consumer support of those businesses.

We urge the Town Council to move quickly in securing the required state permissions and expanding golf cart access to downtown.