Oddly worded Mass. Ave question qualifies for April 6 Ballot

A nonbinding referendum promoted by foes of the Town’s plan to rebuild Mass. Ave. in East Arlington has enough signatures to qualify for the April 6 ballot, according to Town Clerk Stephanie Lucarelli.

However, the measure is vague and contradictory and has no legal force. The Town finalized the three-lane design choice in 2009, and construction on the roadway is scheduled to begin this year.

The advisory question is as follows:

Shall the Town have four vehicular travel lanes on Massachusetts Avenue in East Arlington as currently practiced?

Taken literally, the wording opposes almost any change to the design of the street, including striping it to have “four vehicular travel lanes.”

This includes the four-lane design put forth by the promoters of the referendum, the East Arlington Concerned Citizens Committee.

The Town’s consulting engineers found that design be unsafe and the state highway department said it would not meet state standards.

Most of the pedestrian-safety improvements of the new plan would be physically excluded from a 4-lane design, were one possible.

Mass. Ave. opponents have not explained what they think the Town ought to do if the measure passes.

Unlike statewide referendums, which must be approved by the Attorney General, local advisory questions are not subject to any kind of review for completeness, logic, or accuracy.

Mass. Ave. opponents filed the referendum signatures after Arlington’s Board of Selectmen rejected a request to put the measure on the April ballot last month.

At that time Selectman Dan Dunn cautioned opponents against mounting “a monumental waste of this town’s time.”

For those new in town, here is a quick summary of the new design.

My comments, as usual, in red.

Arlington is a friendly town and there are many reasons to sign someone’s petition, especially one as innocuously worded as this.

But what is supposed to happen if it passes? Which it really could. It’s easy to vote for this sort of “free lunch” resolution. Who doesn’t like  something (another lane) for nothing?

The real trade-off would be to weigh the extra lane against all of the safety improvements that it would displace. The referendum does not mention these.

These improvements are very popular. It is hard to imagine the Town removing them to make room for an unneeded lane even if doing so would not jeopardize funding for the project.

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17 comments so far

  1. bobsprague1943 on

    Thanks for this focus on the wording. I find it interesting that the group who collected signatures to force this measure to the April ballot has yet to comment. Perhaps a “silent majority”?

    Bob Sprague

    • Adam Auster on

      Seems to me the real question is not so much wording as intent.

      Proponents must recognize (mustn’t they?) that such an oddly worded question, nonbinding and at the tail end of the whole process, cannot reasonably have any effect on the project.

      So is the idea to just foment disgruntlement? Or is there an actual agenda?

      I do not like to think that they would go to all this trouble just to create another grievance—in this case, that they won their referendum but didn’t get anything of it from the dread Powers That Be.

      • bobsprague1943 on

        If the group would choose to comment, perhaps then the public would know more.

      • Mark Kaepplein on

        The intent is simple – make the project what MOST residents want. Vision-2020 in the past 11 years could have asked detailed questions on design components, but never did. Shame on them. They gave us more trash questions than transportation questions on the town’s most heavily used street and a big project. Its not disgruntlement, just a protracted battle to honor and serve the residents and businesses, though that naturally produces some feelings of frustration. Personally, I try to keep feelings out and make it non-personal, but I’m only human. I’ve run across information on who is behind getting bike lanes on Mass Ave in Arlington at the state level, but kept names out of it as much as I can help. Arlington residents are innocent victims of policy initiatives by some state officials, former officials, and local lobbies.

        I wish the town had presented plans for improvements with both 3 lanes and 4 lanes to residents, but they refused to with the FST’s false excuse that there was not room for the 4 lanes now being used. An excuse that looked worse when the center plan options were unveiled with 13″ and 14′ wide shared lane options. I also wish plans included the addition of pedestrian activated crossing signals at even one crosswalk – better than tiny, little orange flags. This can aid safety with 2, 3 or 4 lanes.

        The long process of a road project, according to state guidelines, includes well publicized and early involvement of the public and multiple design choices. A single design was not made public until 2009 and did not reflect the desire by most residents to keep four travel lanes. Since that time, people have been using standard procedures to rectify the design: feedback to town, state, and federal officials, my attempts to get a ballot question in Feb. 2012 with Selectmen and then with Article 70 at town meeting. A petition signed by 3,100 residents asking for 4 lanes and no bump outs was done in 2009-2010, submitted, and ignored. Over 70% of independent businesses (even minus just a few possible recants) signed a letter opposing lane reduction was also submitted and dismissed, claiming all the signers must have been confused. Following and exhausting given procedures takes time, so residents get to answer the lane question now instead of Vision-2020 having asked it any time in the past 11 or 12 years.

        Since Selectmen and Town Meeting do not always represent the majority of residents in decisions, it would be foolish to assume they would honor ballot results in their, MassDOT, and Fed DOT faces. I hope they do so its not necessary to go to the next level. All this trouble would have been avoided if the town presented residents with two plans for improvements, one with 3 lanes, and the other 4. Any consequences rest on their shoulders.

        • bobsprague1943 on

          Referring to your last paragraph, can you tell the public what you mean by “the next level.” What is that, and who would go there?

          Bob Sprague

  2. dr2chase on

    I’m curious — I’ve only been half (or less) following the Mass Ave redesign, but isn’t it subject to the same no-reduction-in-level-of-service restrictions as other road redesigns (where “service” means “cars”)? That is, the system for funding these projects is already biased in exactly the direction that this group desires, and that’s not good enough?

    • Adam Auster on

      The design for Mass. Ave does modestly improve traffic flow (“service”). It’s worth noting that these improvements would be sacrificed under a 4-lane design.

      The question of how much has changed at Mass. Highway since the landmark enactment of Chapter 90E in 1996 is interesting. (I think that is sort of what you are asking here.)

      I think traffic engineering is in many ways a conservative discipline and that old habits die hard. But clearly at least some things have changed.

      In any case, Mass. Ave. is just one data point.

      • dr2chase on

        Whoa, strong stuff there (insert massive eye roll). The Trapelo Road translation of this is “bike lanes” (scare quotes necessary, because I think legally they aren’t) that are only 4.5 feet wide and adjacent to car doors. I really hate things that are that far substandard, because the sensible and safe reaction from cyclists is to ride in the edge of traffic (“why aren’t they using the bike lane we built?”) or choose an alternate route altogether (“we wasted all this space on bicycle infrastructure that goes unused”). Or they use it and get doored, giving ammunition to the Effective crowd, who will use this to damn all infrastructure, even the good stuff.

        • Mark Kaepplein on

          I agree that narrow bike lanes in door zones are unsafe and have resulted in dead cyclists. Cambridge has a fair number of 4′ wide bike lanes and even the occasional 3′ bike lane. Its wrong to promote cycling with bike lanes at the expense of people’s safety. I’d rather some creative thinking be used. Many places in metro Boston have excessively wide sidewalks, so make some of it into bike lanes or tracks there. The sidewalk between Alewife T and Fresh Pond strip malls has become a shared path so cyclists can ride on it. That’s what I proposed for Arlington Center at the public meeting unveiling design choices. Its just for a block of sidewalk in front of Cambridge Savings and the Jason Russel House. The bike track in front of Uncle Sam is fine.

          • dr2chase on

            Who needs “creative” when you could just make the darn lanes wide enough?

            And the sidewalk between Alewife T and strip malls is not really adequate. People ride it, but there’s lots of waiting and “on your left” and “pardon me”, and Cambridge doesn’t do a great job of maintaining the pavement, or trimming the thorny brush adjacent, or of ticketing cars that block crosswalks or fail to stop before doing their right-on-red.

            • Mark Kaepplein on

              Cambridge is generally against making roads wide enough. Rt. 16 between Mass Ave (or I-93) and Fresh Pond should have been made 6 lanes+bike track many decades ago! When the MDC got most of Rt 16 classified as a national historic/scenic roadway, except between Mass Ave and Fresh Pond, they intentionally made modernization and progress more difficult. Can’t say I get what is historic about that road, but it gives access to some grant money.

  3. Mark Kaepplein on

    Oh, OK, I’ll respond.

    First, a ballot question is important. It gets an accurate count of how many voters want to keep the de-facto 4 lanes they have used for decades. Selectmen (twice) and Town Meeting (2012, article 70) have not wanted voters to get a direct, democratic voice. The local petition was the third option under state law. My preferred wording was:” Do you want to keep four travel lanes on Mass Ave WHERE now practiced? Yes or No.” The group voted for the other wording – shame on anyone who doesn’t know I am usually right! :-) We have seen the 4 lanes disappear between Highland and Lockeland only to create problems, along with non-conforming bump outs near the Church and Johnnies (regulation is 6′ maximum projection).

    The bigger issue is that the whole public input process has been a sham and a fraud, no matter how many public meetings there were or weren’t. Selectmen and MassDOT could have another 50 and still ignore what residents want. BTW, the heights project had a reported 75 public meetings for less drastic changes.

    The results from the ballot question will PROVE the public input process was a con job to deceive the public into thinking what they wanted matters. The project design will need to reflect what its users want, not Selectmen or bicycle lobbies.

    As to diminished capacity on Mass Ave., common sense tells us that 3 lanes will perform worse than four. FST fudged the data to change the conclusion. They modeled the Lake Street intersection as having a right turn lane in the parking/MBTA bus stop & handicapped space in front of the theater. Meanwhile, it also modeled westbound as one through lane and a shared left turn and through lane. Many times (especially during peaks, but not when snow banks narrow the road) it operates as two through lanes plus a left turn lane, given that the road width there is 80′, and wider than at Medford Street where there is a left turn lane plus four travel lanes. Getting this intersection simulation wrong then makes travel segments through it all wrong too! The bottom line is that the current road performs better than modeled and significant performance loss with the 3-lane plan.

    • Adam Auster on

      I don’t expect this vote to have any effect on the Mass. Ave. project and by the sound of it neither do you.

      Rather, you anticipate a win at the polls that will vindicate your many grievances against the Town of Arlington, at least for yourself and your compatriots.

      Then what?

      I think you have made an extraordinary effort for such a small result. Your sense of vindication will be mostly limited to within your own circle.

      Most people in town do not share your grievances and will not be persuaded to do so by voting for your innocently worded referendum.

      They support the safety improvements that four lanes would make impossible and would be outraged were these improvements removed to please your group.

      A nonbinding ballot question of course has no legal force, but one that is based on a trick has no moral or political force either.

      • Mark Kaepplein on

        I wish the project design was about safety first, but its not. The easy example is how moving the busy bus stops at the busy Lake/Winter intersection would reduce conflicts and potential accidents. Pedestrian activated crossing signals where none exist would aid safety and convenience, especially for the vision impaired.

        I wrote several letters responding to the 25% plan pointing out deficiencies and missing information. Only at 75% did the fed reviewer also note missing Level Of Service data for pedestrians and cyclists.

        What I wish that would happen for all projects is objective evaluation of how effective safety features actually are and a prediction for each of how many fewer accidents and injuries can be expected. This exists for only a few devices, like raised medians or having sidewalks where none exist. The only justification for most is that they might reduce average traffic speed by 1-3 mph and indirectly assert value given reduced severity of injuries, with no direct data or results.

        How much would removal of one of two double jepody crossings reduce accidents? Don’t know. How much would trucks, MBTA buses, and others double parked in bike lanes increase accidents? Don’t know. Will Sen. Brownsberger’s new bill “SD00731 An Act to protect bicyclists in bicycle lanes”, if passed, create headaches for deliveries? Don’t know.

        With good information, features can be prioritized, better chosen, and the result is better decisions. If Arlingtonians greatly switch from cars to bicycles in the future, a 4 lane road can be made 3 with paint. The proposed 3-lane plan moves curbs inward and offsets the road crown, so it can’t easily be made 4 lanes if it doesn’t work out or business booms and needs change.

    • Mark Kaepplein on

      FST made some other modeling errors of Mass Ave, though not as profound as the errors at Lake Street. The updated model results sent to the fed in response to 75% comments changed the end of Lake to a single lane that can turn left or right on M.A. In the FDR, a short right turn lane was modeled. Their model is also missing some No Turn On Red restrictions, like for the Linwood traffic light – probably because there is no reason to prohibit right on red around there (great sight lines)!


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