Clash of bureaucracies led to Mass. Ave. delay

Last month a long-simmering dispute between the Federal Highway Administration and MassDOT over the redesign of Mass. Ave. became public. On Valentines Day MassDOT’s response hinted at a dense back-and forth over traffic merges, trip times, and public participation.

One consequence is that MassDOT bowed to a federal request for another public hearing on the design (7 pm Tuesday February 26 at Town Hall).

Another is that MassDOT has delayed the project by 3 months, with advertising for the project now scheduled for June 1.

But what of the issues that the FHA raised on its January 23 letter to MassDOT? Those would be traffic merges, trip times, and public participation.

The FHA letter is a mixture of jargon and the passive voice. It refers obliquely to what has clearly been a long correspondence (not provided) and poses a real challenge to the research department here at The Word on the Street. I’m not trained to decode it.

But Friday the Town posted (on its Mass. Ave. web page) MassDOT’s February 14 response to the FHA. This response provides more context and makes the FHA’s questions clearer.

Based on that I am going to take a stab at unpacking the three main issues at stake. Or at least two of them right now, with the third to follow shortly in another post. I quote from both the FHA letter of January 23 and MassDOT’s Valentine’s Day response.

1) Is the analysis complete? FHA questions MassDOT about “the completeness of the analysis” of the impact of a westbound merge and left turns, which FHA suggests will cause a delay. (The merge must be the one by the Hawthorn Suites motel near Route 16—would it hurt to say so?) “The above delay does not appear to have been included in the output of the 2010 Highway Capacity software,” a new computer model that FHA requested be used.

MassDOT replies that (1) Merge analysis per se is not an FHA requirement, perhaps because (2) “there is currently no commonly accepted analysis” for this purpose.

In any case (3) Arlington’s consulting engineers (Fay, Spofford & Thorndike or “FST”) modeled the merge and found “the merge operating well since the single downstream lane is not over capacity.”

MassDOT’s reply about the left turns is less clear, but it sounds like another issue that is not standardly analyzed. Two years ago, FST Engineer Richard Azzalina  testified that a left-turning vehicle westbound could hold up traffic by just 6-8 seconds, if not at one of the left-turn lanes (25%-Design-Hearing Transcript 89–90).

You know, the politics behind this sparring are going to be fascinating, if we ever learn what they are. In the mean time it sounds as though the analysis is not especially deficient by normal standards, even if it may not describe everything that someone could think up.

2) The meaning of the new analysis. This is a new computer simulation requested by FHA. Federal highway says that the analysis shows longer trip times from the new design versus the status quo (referred to as the “no-build” scenario).

This may be the most substantive issue. I’m going to tackle this one in the next day or so.

3) The need for more hearings. FHA (reply p. 2) tells MassDOT,

public input should be sought to ensure the preferred alternative reasonably accomplishes the purpose and need of the project

an unobjectionable observation, but one made as though FHA were ignorant of the history of extensive public engagement in this project. Indeed MassDOT cites

30 public meetings to date, including Public Workshops and Informational Meetings, Review Committee Meetings, Business owner Meetings, Board of Selectmen Meetings and including a MassDOT 25% Design Public Hearing as well as a 75% Design Town Open House Meeting. (Reply p. 4)

There is one respect in which, in my view, FHA stands on firmer ground. In its request for another public hearing, FHA says MassDOT should highlight

any changes that have occurred since the 25%-design public hearing. (Letter p. 3)

To make a long story short: the Town’s remarkable record of public engagement ended abruptly in 2011, but the town continued to make substantive changes through 2012.

The history of public participation that MassDOT cites is an awfully high bar, but the Town did well to set it. Perhaps had the Town stayed that course a little longer, we could have avoided this FHA-ordered rehearing on February 26.

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5 comments so far

  1. dr2chase on

    Re: modeling. Not too many years ago I attended a sort of super-duper-computing conference, where they talk a lot about modeling and simulation. One of the things I recall being mentioned was that the models then in use for intersections and merging traffic were pretty much based on fantasy, and that new models based on individual car behavior were far better. I wonder what sort of models these guys are discussing?

    The executive summary of the old flaw was that it did not take into account the way that heavy traffic can block access from a side street, and made overoptimistic assumptions about how cars would mix in that case. Modeling at the car level and assuming that a car needed thus-and-such-a-gap (dependent on the traffic speed, of course) before it could proceed produced much more realistic results.

    • Adam Auster on

      The modeling software was an issue before. The Town’s engineers use a package called Synchro that has a graphical font end to help visualize the data.

      Amusingly, it renders that data in unrealistically orderly ways—drivers coming to full stops, politely yielding and so forth.

      When the engineers showed Synchro in action, people thought the software was based on this unrealistic behavior and made some very pointed criticisms about the obvious flaws in the model, which seemed to assume perfect driving from everyone!

      The truth was that the data were not based on any of that–it was just the way the data were shown. But it seemed to corroborate the meme of pointy-headed engineers who could not tell the map from the territory.

      • dr2chase on

        This was not the problem I heard described, and I don’t know that this is regarded as a large problem. Did people think that the orderly-traffic assumption would understate or understate throughput? Did whoever it was who made this critique have any actual measurements to back up their criticism, or was this just the usual anti-intellectual BS that we’re so fond of in this country?

        Note that the flaw I saw discussed was not a huge surprise; the old model was done that way out of necessity (no cheap supercomputers), not stupidity.

  2. Mark Kaepplein on

    The big picture on MassDOT vs. FHWA is that Mass Ave is just one of numerous MassDOT projects where policy has replaced engineering. FHWA now insists its many millions of dollars need to be used to actually make transportation improvements while following regulations. Mass Ave is just one project where FHWA has had enough and started to put their foot down.

    The 2006 Mass Highway Project Design guide calls for producing pedestrian and cyclist Level of Service and it was never reported. Metrics like those are hard to design and defend. The 2010 version of the Highway Capacity provides new modeling methodology for urban streets, and that is what FHWA asked for.

    A modeling failure I’ve thought about includes many devices like bump outs and large radius corners that are purported to increase safety, yet show no effectiveness. The effectiveness is claimed via traffic slow downs. If that is so, do the models take all these devices and locations as inputs to the simulations? Not so much.

    The side street problem does bother me. With half the number of lanes, traffic will back up about twice as far behind a red light. It also means that when there might have been gaps in a flow of two lanes of cars, a more continuous stream of one lane results. It blocks traffic from entering on unsignalized side streets and driveways, hurting Level Of Service for them.

    Some of the simpler things are in simulations like traffic light phasing and timing along with lane widths, turn lane lengths and how often these lanes are blocked. For example, there is an input for the percentage of time the bus in front of the Capitol will block the right turn lane. Ugly details are in the appendices of the FDR and just the summaries sent to FHWA following their request for more.

    I remember from since the early days of the spreadsheets and then PowerPoint, glorious sales projections and graphics have been produced, much of it weakly based on reality!

  3. Steve Cella on

    One other comment about the 30 public meetings..I Believe Chad Gibson may have wrote down a history of some of those meeting that was published in your Arlington but it would be interesting to have a complete list to know what is being considered as part of this public process.

    I know there were several meetings with TAC in the early 2000’s which nobody knew about. There was also a public workshop in 2008 when again were not aware of the project or at least extent of the project. Further a number of the meeting were with private individuals and maybe 17 or so were part of the that committee that was set up.

    So to paint the process as having 30+ meeting to somehow show all the public input that was being gathered is highly deceptive!!


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