Mass DOT takes comments

Advocates for and against the rebuilding of Mass. Ave. in East Arlington went into overdrive, and comments from the public went into overtime, at a sometimes-raucous project hearing at Town Hall on April 12.

Some 400 people came to the Department of Transportation hearing on the Town’s proposed design. 79 gave comments, and many more were turned away when the hearing adjourned at 10:40.

Arlington Town Hall on Tuesday night. Not quite to capacity, but very full.

Of the 79 comments allowed, 46 supported the plan and 30 were opposed. (I explain below how I counted this.)

The context of this hearing was different from that of the seven public design meetings sponsored by the Town during the past two and a half years.

Where previously the Town had sought comments to shape the final proposal to Mass. Highway, at this hearing the state asked the public to comment on what the Town had done.

As the agency explained in a handout distributed at the hearing, the process, though open, is not supposed to be a democratic one:

The hearings are not intended to be a popular referendum for the purpose of determining the nature of a proposed improvement by a majority of those present. They do not relieve the duly constituted officials of a State highway department of the necessity for making decisions in State highway matters for which they are charged with full responsibility.

Doing justice to the comments is beyond me in this format; fortunately the Department will post a transcript of the entire meeting. Below I share some of the highlights of the hearing from my point of view. My comments are in red and yours are welcome at the end of this report.

Appearing on behalf of the Department, Project Manager Kimberly Sloan began by saying that the project is listed in the 2012 Transportation Improvement Project, design to be completed by fall of 2011 and construction “within 24 months.” She said the total cost of the project is currently projected to be $5.8 million.

Sloan did not say, but I assume would agree, that the previous assumes that the Department approves the project following the hearing. Certainly if the schedule slips, the cost is likely to rise.

Rick Azzalina, who has been the lead consulting engineer for the Town on this project since last spring, gave a general presentation of the scope and goals of the plan, which was filed with the Department last fall. This included the now-familiar features: a 3-lane road, more or less; many safety improvements for pedestrians, and bicycle lanes. (Here’s an overview.)

One new element of his presentation was to spend some time explaining the state and federal requirements to accommodate all users, not just cars. He said that since “traffic studies indicate surplus road exists in East Arlington,” the plan takes the surplus to meet the needs of all the users (include motor vehicles, since traffic flow is improved too).

Azzalina highlighted the shorter crossing distances made possible by sidewalk neckdowns (bump outs) at unsignalized crossings and also by the 3-lane configuration. He noted that the shorter crossings will be not only safer but also quicker, meaning less of a delay for cars.

He also

  • mentioned design features such as benches and pedestrian-scale lighting that are not detailed in the 25% plan.
  • said that bus stops had been repositioned and improved to make it easier for buses to pull completely out of traffic,
  • said that based on experience the net effect would lead to “increased business patronage.”

The applause that followed this last remark was interrupted by some booing and other unfriendly sounds. (Puzzled aside to self: Why?) Clarissa Rowe, who chairs the Board of Selectmen this year and who was running this part of the meeting, rebuked “this kind of yelling,” and from this point on tried to discourage any sort of demonstrations of opinion, including applause.

This ban was often more honored in the breach than in the observance, but when opponents tried to interrupt speakers, Ms Rowe announced that people who did so would be asked to leave. I saw her giving instructions to uniformed police officers who were present. Things settled down after that.

I’m not sure how realistic it is to ask a crowd like this to hold applause, but I can do without the booing and other stuff.

Speaking of applause, from where I sat at front right, opponents sounded generally louder but less numerous, and supporters more numerous but more reserved, when exercising their palms, at least during the first part of the evening. I am sure it sounded differently in other parts of the hall.

On parking, Azzalina said, “There are no lost legal parking spaces along the corridor,” although some of those spaces will move. As a result, he said, “There is a net gain of 14 [legal] spaces within the business district.”

The Selectmen waived reading their comments and Senator Donnelly read a short letter of support from the entire legislative delegation.

Then the comments began, from a true cross-section of the community. Comments were occasionally punctuated by technical explanations from Azzalina and others. Both sides were well represented, and both invoked variously safety, aesthetics, support for local businesses, fairness, and property values in support of their positions.

Opponents for the most part refrained from making technical arguments against the plan, relying on passion and volume to assert their case that the changes would make traffic disastrously worse.

Many of the supporting speakers were similarly emotional, for children’s safety or a more people-friendly East Arlington. One woman told of how she had been struck by a car in the cross walk at Grafton Street, which would be improved under the Town’s plan.

This observation is not a criticism of either side. The traffic-engineering issues at stake are technical, and it is unlikely that flaws would emerge at this stage. But it meant there was no “smoking gun” to contradict the town’s claims, now endorsed by the Department’s staff, that the plan would improve traffic and safety, and was needed to meet DOT requirements, and other things.

Opponents, clearly laboring under the burden of rebutting the technical consensus for the plan, at turns pleaded with Mass Highway for support and attacked the agency for things like its design guidelines to accommodate pedestrians and bicycles as well as motor vehicles. One man was so angry that he referred to the agency as “MassPort.”

Opponents arranged to have most of their speakers in the first half of the hearing, and many of their supporters left early. I don’t think this was fair to people who never got to speak, but I didn’t make the rules for this hearing. The hall grew less raucous as time passed and people went home. The tone of the second half could have been that of an entirely different hearing.

Many left around 10 pm when Rowe announced that only those who had already been called and were standing on line would get to testify. At that point speakers were limited to one minute each.

“Stop” signs waved as petitions are presented. 

During comments, opponents submitted what they said were 2,700 signatures against the project.

The petitions were not delivered in the promised boxes, but were accompanied by a show of small placards in the shape of “stop” signs printed for the event. The placards were a clever touch, but probably fell short of expectations, since although there were many of them most of the people in the hall did not hold them up.

Rowe sometimes called on consultants and town and state staff for technical explanations in response to issues raised.

In response to one question, Azzalina said the four-lane option would not fit into the curb-to-curb width of Mass. Ave and would require the roadway to be widened by several feet. He referred to the analysis of this issue in the Functional Design Report, which I have summarized here.

Frank Suszynski, a state highway engineer, of Mass. DOT explained that the agency requires a bicycle accommodation, which can be either a bike lane or a shared lane that is at least 15 feet wide. 16 feet is “preferred,” he said, when next to a parking lane.

The opponents’ latest proposal would only allocate 14 feet to this lane; both Azzalina and Suszynski said that would not satisfy state guidelines.

This may have been news to some people, but was discussed with the leadership of the anti-rebuild group in 2009, at the first meeting of the reconstituted Mass. Ave. Review Committee. I reported on that meeting here.

Suszynski also said that the Department generally prefers bike lanes to  shared lanes, when they are feasible.

In response to another question, Michael Rademacher, the Town’s Public Works director, said that acquiring various easements and rights needed to construct the project will cost between 100 and 200 million thousand dollars depending on things we don’t know yet.

The final speaker allowed did not give her prepared remarks, instead reading a text message from her ten-year-old daughter, who had been present at the first part of the hearing. This final testimony was both cute and to the point: she was in favor of the new design.

MassDOT is accepting comments on the plan until April 22; see the Town’s web page for more information, and also for a link to the materials handed out at the hearing.

Further coverage at YourArlington, the Arlington Advocate, and the Boston Globe.

My take on these events, if you can stand it, follows.

Opponents put on the best show, but supporters had the most substantive arguments. In what is supposed to be a fact-based process, that may carry the day.

I honestly do not know what to make of the many people who claimed that removing a Cambridge-bound lane will worsen their morning commute. The plan would not do that, as the drawings clearly show and as the town has patiently explained to all comers for nearly two years.

No doubt some people are still genuinely confused about this, but I think an element of recreational outrage has crept into the opposition. We don’t need no stinkin’ facts, we just like waving stop signs at meetings and railing heroically against changes that are not actually proposed.

The only way this works for opponents is if MassDOT mistakes it for honest ignorance and concludes that the Town has shockingly neglected to tell residence even the most basic facts of its own plan. If so the agency could bump the project off the 2012 TIP to give Arlington officials more time to sell the plan at home.

This would be a terrible misread of the actual situation, which is based not on honest misunderstanding but on open hostility by opponents. In my view, the Town’s efforts to include the public, and to reach out to opponents, have been exceptional.

My count of 30 against and 46 in favor is based on my notes; I may have missed one or two but I did not overstate anything. (For instance, in one place my notes are unclear whether there were two consecutive “pro” comments, or just one broken across two pages; I counted it as one).

I did include Eric Berger’s lawyer and his engineer in the count, although technically they are just hired representatives (so I counted Berger 3 times!); I include out-of-towners, present on both sides of the issue.

It seems a shame to reduce all these comments to a headcount, but I can’t do their substance justice now. (Bob Sprague takes a stab at it in his coverage at Yourarlington.com and does not do a bad job.)

Update: I’ve made one correction to the above based on the official transcript of the hearing. Joe Connors said that his group had collected 2,700 signatures on its petition. I regret the error, an honest mistake, and plead distraction. See the comments for more.

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6 comments so far

  1. Duke Briscoe on

    You say between 100 and 200 million for easements – should that be thousands instead?

    • Adam Auster on

      Yikes! Of course you are right. I plead extreme fatigue (and have fixed the post). Thanks to you and those who wrote me privately to point this out!

  2. DONALD MITCHELL on

    Great write-up. I’ve linked to this from my opinion piece: http://dhmitchell.blogspot.com/2011/04/mass-avenue-reconstruction.html

    • Adam Auster on

      From Donald’s blog:

      The state is willing to fix the road if they can bring it up to modern standards.

      That’s as neat a summing up as I can think of.

  3. Steve on

    Obviously you are a supporter of the plan and are therefore biased and I would not fault you for having a slant on the meeting but I would just note a couple of examples of the bias in your post.

    For example you mention that opponents of the plan had 2,000 signatures which was the same as last summer. I did not see the signatures but the opponents actually said they had over 2,700 and that they collected those only within a certain time frame. One speaker mentioned that this was only 6% of the total residents however what was missing was the fact that no attempt was made to collect signatures from the whole town. In regard to support/opposition for the plan we really do not have a very reliable sense what kind of support or opposition there is since the selectman refused to do any kind of survey..either an actual survey or any type of nonbinding referendum on the ballot for this past election so we really do not have any idea of how it actually breaks down.

    I know in my own experience more people are against the project than support it. Which brings up another point. The idea among supporters or the way that supports imply that folks who are against the project are against the project as a whole or that opponents do not want to see anything done, that they do not want to see any improvement/safety improvements etc which is not true. My own feeling is that 95% of the people support at least 80% of the project. The main point of contention is the reduction in travel lanes that will increase traffic/congestion.

    Further you claim that opponents were more vocal but less represented than supporters. This is pure perception. I was at the meeting until about 9:30 and then watched the rest on tv. I would disagree here however, it is really difficult to judge so point would be difficult to argue either way.

    However when you say the opponents were making only emotional arguments and not technical ones but the supporters had more facts, this is just nonsense. Most of the supporters made subjective emotional statements. Very few speakers on either side..maybe a couple at most.. had any type of technical arguments or facts to back up what they were saying. Most supporters threw out statements like businesses will be improved, or or it will be easier to cross or safety will be improved without anything backing that up.

    As far as the issue with the Cambridge bound lane are you saying that for the whole length of the east bound (Cambridge bound) side it is two lanes??

    If that is what you are suggesting then that may be where the confusion is.. there are stretches where it is basically one lane and then once you get past lake street it is basically two lanes but there are stretches where it is basically one lane and which will increase traffic.

    Anyway I could continue but I think you get the idea…

    • Adam Auster on

      Steve, thank you for taking the time to comment.

      It is true that after following this issue for more than two years, I have developed some distinct opinions. I have never tried to hide them, but nonetheless do my best to be factual.

      I take pride in the fact that some of the most outspoken critics of the Mass. Ave project read what I write and have left comments here.

      I did not lowball Joe Connor’s estimate of the number of signatures you folks had collected out of some agenda of my own. It would be pointless to do so in any case (as well as dishonest), since the exact number filed will become part of the public record.

      However, it is possible that I made a reporting error. There was a lot going on during Joe’s presentation, and I had just a little warning about the stop-sign business, which I did not know was coming.

      I’m pleased that I was able to get a photo, but there was a period when I was fumbling with my camera and not taking notes. So it is entirely possible that Joe said, at one point, that there were 2,700 signatures, and I missed it. We’ll see when the transcript is published.

      However, I think the transcript will also show that right at the end of his comments, he said something like “more than two thousand.” I remember that particularly because it seemed kind of low, based on his remarks last summer. It’s unfortunate if I missed a greater figure, though.

      I’m not sure where you get the “emotion versus fact” thing, and I might direct you to the paragraphs beginning “Many of the supporting speakers were similarly emotional” and “This observation is not a criticism of either side.”

      I think it is fair to say, however, that more proponents than opponents showed familiarity with the actual proposal and in some cases with the analysis and the data behind it, than opponents did. That’s got to count for something before the Department; this is after a regulatory hearing.

      I expect you and I will just disagree about that. But I appreciate your expressing yourself here, and we’ll see what the transcript says about Joe Connor’s remarks.


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