Conspiracy Unmasked

Disgruntled critics of the Mass. Ave. project stoop, sometimes, to dark mutterings. They say that corruption, collusion, and conspiracy have foisted special-interest street design upon a hapless Arlington.

Greedy, sneaky man with suitcase full of money

Paul Hajj illustration

To be sure, transportation planning, like other disciplines, has developed an entrenched consensus about many things, based on law, habit, and experience.

However, corruption involves a betrayal of trust or responsibility, usually in return for money.

Other than vague handwaving about secret meetings, opponents have never bothered to show any such thing.

This despite having shopped their accusations to law enforcement in several venues.

I however have found the smoking gun. I can identify the date and place of the 1996 meeting that made a significant decision about bicycles.

And, I can name names, or at least one of them.

Follow the money with me to see the extent to which the conspiracy theories are true—and are not.

Money makes the world go ’round

The Town of Arlington aggressively pursues state, federal, and private grants to funds its programs.

The Town’s Planning and Community Development Department is a grant powerhouse. It brings home millions of dollars each year for everything from roads to street lighting.

Grants come with strings attached, and to qualify the Town writes proposals that demonstrate compliance with all requirements.

Similarly, as needed, the Town hires consultants with the expertise and experience to meet those requirements and get the money.

For road projects, which all involve public funds, those requirements are extensive.

Ask yourself: As a state and federal taxpayer, shouldn’t there be some limits on the things on which your money can be spent? How about a poorly designed road or bridge?

The taxpayers have similar legitimate concerns about Arlington.

Collaboration or conspiracy?

The Town, MassDOT, and the federal government share many common interests. All want to build good streets. All want street design to be subject to technical review. All want road projects to respond to actual needs of the community.

Consequently, the process is usually collaborative, not adversarial. There’s a lot of talk back and forth throughout the design process, to resolve issues and make the best design.

Engineering consultants speak the same language as state engineers and share an understanding of the same discipline and standards.

Thus many of the elements of a conspiracy are present: shared goals and monetary reward. These are also however the ingredients for an effective and fruitful collaboration.

The key question is, who sets these standards? Whose interests does this apparatus serve?

Notes from the star chamber

I have identified the secret meeting at which the most contentious decision of all was made. The decision was about bicycles and was made on May 20 of 1996. Here it is:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:

Chapter 90E of the General Laws is hereby amended by inserting after section 2, as appearing in the 1994 Official Edition, the following section:-

Section 2A. The commissioner shall make all reasonable provisions for the accommodation of bicycle and pedestrian traffic in the planning, design, and construction, reconstruction or maintenance of any project undertaken by the department. Such provisions that are unreasonable shall include, but not be limited to, those which the commissioner, after appropriate review by the bicycle program coordinator, determines would be contrary to acceptable standards of public safety, degrade environmental quality or conflict with existing rights of way.

The above law, enacted at the State House in 1996, is the statutory basis for many policies and design guidelines of MassDOT.

It marked a shift in transportation policy to accommodate all users. It is the law.

Opponents of this principle may have a beef, but with the Legislature, not the Town of Arlington.

Where’s the beef?

The Town is only trying to comply with the policies that MassDOT has set forth to implement a law enacted by the vote of elected representatives.

Note how the law sets a broad general goal and leaves it up to professionals at MassDOT to implement that goal. Is there a better model for spending public money?

The only thing that remains to know is what Beacon Hill insider imperiously imposed this standard on the people of Arlington.

Conspirator unmasked

As it turns out, the author and sponsor of the above law, Chapter 87 of the Acts of 1996, was State Rep. Anne Paulsen, who ably represented East Arlington until her retirement in 2006.

Paulsen’s district covered most of East Arlington until redistricting in 2002.

So there you have it. A democratically elected legislature adopts the proposal of East Arlington’s elected representative to change state policy about road design.

The bureaucracy dutifully complies (as it should), promulgating specific provisions and guidelines to Make It So.

The Town of Arlington, mindful of its obligation to local taxpayers, follows the guidelines and the money.

The “special interests” are the people of Massachusetts and of Arlington. None dare call it conspiracy, because it’s not.

Is there a better system that preserves public control of public money?

There is a saying, “If the facts are on your side, pound the facts. If the law is on your side, pound the law. If neither are on your side, pound the table.”

The conspiracy theories are table-pounding par excellence.

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3 comments so far

  1. Mark Kaepplein on

    What a tease, keeping the reader guessing until the end of the piece! I thought the exposed conspiracy would involve use of local democratic email list, the Byrne campaign email list, the Obama email list, Walk Boston and Cambridge’s Livable Streets, and using Medford, Belmont, and Lexington bicycling lists, all to oppose a non-partisan hearing and ballot question. We already heard that Greg Cohen wrote a letter, though far more outsiders wrote backing Selectman.

  2. Karin on

    Love this! I forgot Anne Paulsen was representing Arlington! (I lived in Somerville at the time, but our MassBike board was always talking about how great she was!)

  3. SueD on

    Excellent investigation! We knew there was something sinister going on. ;-)


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