Public views Mass. Ave. plans
About 200 Arlington residents and fellow travelers came to Town Hall last night for the seventh public hearing on much-delayed plans to refurbish Mass. Ave, which is still slated for 2012.
It was the first opportunity for the public to question the consulting engineers about the plan since April of 2009. The Board of Selectmen submitted the plans for State review last August.
Most of the basic elements of the plan are unchanged: the lane configuration, including bicycle lanes, new pedestrian crossings, and traffic signals at Teel/Thorndike, Lake, Bates/Marion, and Linwood/Foster.
As described last week, however, the latest drawings remove a proposed traversable median from much of Mass. Ave., widen traffic lanes, and reduce or eliminate proposed sidewalk widening in the business district around the Capitol Theater.
One sidewalk would even be narrowed in one place to accommodate the wider traffic lanes.
The engineers made these and other changes in response to criticism of the 2009 version made earlier this year by Mass. Highway District 4.
Comments and questions following a presentation by Rick Azzalina of Fay Spofford & Thorndike were wide-ranging. Azzalina repeatedly described the design as “a work in progress” that could be influenced by public comments.
However, his responses to comments mostly explained why particular changes were unlikely or inexpedient.
Azzalina said the plan is to resubmit the so-called 25% plans to Mass. Highway next month, for a formal hearing in September paving the way (through many intermediate steps) to advertise the project in December of 2011.
My notes, incomplete and unofficial as usual, follow; my personal comments are in red.
At about 7:15 Selectman Jack Hurd welcomed the crowd to what he called the seventh public meeting about this project.
He said that the rebuild will be funded with state and federal monies that can’t be used for any other purpose in Arlington.
If we do not spend this money, he said, it will be allocated to road projects in other Massachusetts communities.
Carol Kolwalski, the town’s Planning Director, said that regardless of the design, “all roads and sidewalks will be remodeled.”
She said that the proposed lane configuration is adequate for traffic on Mass. Ave., and that the latest design improves traffic flow so that there will be less reason for drivers to leave for side streets than the current design.
She praised the design and said that she had worked in a community where a similar process has been very successful.
It was pretty clear that Hurd and Kowalski made these points in response to assertions made by opponents of the project: that the project is optional, that we can “send money back” to Washington instead of using it, or that there are fundamental flaws in the design. Opponents made some of these points anyway in their comments.
The bulk of the presentation took the form of a power-point presentation from Rick Azzalina of Fay Spofford & Thorndike, the engineering consultants the Town retained for this project.
This presentation covered a lot of familiar ground and I am not going to even try for a comprehensive recap. Here are a few things that caught my eye.
Azzalina continued the theme of addressing myths and criticisms put about by opponents of the project.
He said that three traffic studies since 2001 had all concluded that Mass. Ave did not need to be four lanes, except at the busiest intersections, and noted that this study alone had made three separate traffic samples: in October, in May, and in June. At last week’s committee meeting he also said that the three samples corroborated each other closely.
He projected the text of the Massachusetts law and the Federal policy requiring bicycle accommodation, and said we had to satisfy those requirements to get the funds.
Accompanied by a map showing both Mass. Ave. and the Minuteman Path, he basically said, Look how these routes go to different places.
The net effect was a little defensive, but I’m glad the Town addressed these points head on.
Azzalina also described some of the changes made in response to District 4, such as the lane widening and the elimination of the previously proposed traversable median.
He said it was “very usual” to get these kinds of comments in the process, and specifically noted that the median had been eliminated to “play it conservatively” with District 4, not because it was a bad idea.
One of the slides in the presentation was a sketch of an idealized streetscape–a wide sidewalk with lots of stuff going on, storefronts and signage and benches and vendor carts and happy people.
It was just a sketch but very suggestive of some real places around here–it reminded me of Lexington Center or downtown Winchester.
The drawing provoked some muttering, and then a round of forced tittering that seemed to me to go on a bit long. That was finally answered by some applause that felt equally forced and theatrical.
Although this was an “informational” meeting, many people apparently feel plenty informed already and have chosen sides. I guess the seven public meetings have done their job in that respect.
For a while, Azzalina took questions called out from the audience to clarify parts of his presentation. These began to get a little argumentative and Kowalski asked people to hold questions until the end.
In response to questions and comments, Azzalina, the other engineers, and Kowalski said,
- Mass DOT had reviewed allegations that Arlington did not have the legal authority to redesign Mass. Ave., and found “no problem” with proceeding.
The opponents have apparently threatened to sue the Town on this point. Officials did not seem too worried.
- Many of those responsible for the latest plan agreed that the proposed medians were good ideas that ought to be allowed, but nonetheless declined to try to persuade District 4 on that point. It would “not be a good use of our time,” Azzalina said.
This point deserves some amplification and perhaps even its own post. The questioner had a copy of some Mass. Highway design rules describing and praising the sort of traversable medians to which District 4 had objected.
Azzalina essentially said that was correct but the Town had nonetheless decided not to contest the issue with District 4.
Update: I’ve posted the excerpt from the Mass. Highway design manual, and further information, here. Weird.
- Wider traffic lanes were a direct result of eliminating the median, to find a place to put the eliminated width.
- The finding that the new design would not increase cut-through traffic is based on data that show (a) that traffic does not exceed capacity along the corridor and (b) that service levels at signals are as good or better than at present.
- These data (and others) are in the Functional Design Report (here, but subject to revision with this new version of the plan).
- Flooding issues will be addressed at a later stage of planning.
- A new housing development planned in Arlington was announced very recently and its impact on the project will be factored in to the analysis. I admit I don’t know anything about this. Does anyone know where it is?
In many respects, the comments and questions were the most interesting part of the evening, lasting about 70 minutes.
I’m not going to try to summarize that in this post, which is getting pretty long, but I thought most comments fell into three categories roughly equally.
- First were comments hostile to basic elements of the design.
- Second were comments criticizing the recent changes as unfriendly to pedestrians or businesses.
- Third were comments or complaints or ideas about traffic and transit, not all necessarily related to Mass. Ave. For instance, one woman spoke about the dedicated bicycle paths in some Northern European countries; another about traffic near her house on Lake St.
I hate to be cynical, but seemed unlikely to me that these comments would have much of an effect on the final design. The first group was arguing about things that have long been decided, such as the number of lanes. Mass. Highway seems fine with the basic design, so they are no longer at issue.
The second group was arguing about a decision not to contest comments from District 4, although there are apparently real grounds for doing so. This ought to be in bounds at this point, but it really sounded to me as though the Town had made up its mind not to fight with District 4 even with the facts and the law on its side.
The third group, with some exceptions, wanted more than the scope of this project could hope to accomplish: less traffic everywhere, European bicycle paths, etc.
The whole evening got a little raucous but was well run and was nothing like some past meetings where opponents of the project tried to shout other people down.
People have taken sides in this debate, but I saw many people clapping for everyone who spoke, regardless of what “side” they represented.
There was a LOT more–and if I anyone wants to fill in blanks in the comments, please go ahead–but I think this captures some of the issues and the flavor and the scene.
From the Town’s point of view, I think, this was a successful event, with lots of genuine interest and many viewpoints leavening and diluting the increasingly bitter tone of the opposition group that was so outspoken in the Spring of 2009.