The $700,000 Traffic Light

Seven Hundred Thousand Dollars

Last October 18, one day after the public hearing where residents were prevented from asking about the cost of the Lake Street signal project, Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine shared the current estimate with’s Bob Sprague.

The project, which would place a traffic signal where the Minuteman path crosses lake Street, would cost around $700,000, many times its original cost estimate of $150,000.

That’s a lot for a single traffic light, even accounting for the tie-in with the nearby signal at Brooks Ave. and landscaping on the path.

So in this post, I’d like to explore some issues around the sometimes-forbidden topics of cost and financing for this project, as best as I understand them.

Why So Much?

The new traffic signals for the Mass. Ave. project cost something over $100,000 each. A key to the Lake St. project, however, would be coordination with the existing traffic light at Brooks Ave., just 75 yards to the west of the path crossing.

The Brooks Ave. signal is already a significant bottleneck at rush hour, and an uncoordinated signal right next door would make the traffic problem worse, not better.

Linking the two signals requires an underground electrical conduit and related construction work, so it is not surprising that the project costs more than a simple freestanding signal.

$150 thousand was probably unrealistically low, even in 2015 when the idea was first pitched to the Board of Selectmen.

But $700 thousand? When I tried to ask about the price tag in October, I thought I would hear an estimate in the $400k range at most.

$700k represents a four-fold increase from the original $150k estimate—in just three years. At that rate, the project cost would cross a million dollars by next year’s construction season.

Additional Costs

In addition to the conduit, and beyond the traffic signal itself, the project proposes the following features:

  • Replacement of the Brooks Ave. signal with new equipment. The signal itself would not change appreciably, although there would be new electronic signage.
  • New sidewalk at the Brooks Ave. intersection
  • Redesign of the Minuteman Path on the southbound approach, to reduce sight lines
  • Redesign of the path at the intersection, and removal of shrubs and trees, to increase sight lines
  • Widening of the path at the intersection, where the path would flair to be nearly as wide as Lake St. itself
  • Landscaping, benches, and other amenities.

And of course, it makes sense that construction costs generally are greater today than they have been.

Diagram of Lake Street Signal Project

Source: Town of Arlington

Does this add up to $700 thousand? Apparently.

Who Pays and How?

The Town maintains and, to some extent, improves streets with funds from the state’s transportation program, Chapter 90.

According to the state’s Department of Transportation, Arlington will receive $788,803 in Chapter 90 funds in the next fiscal year. Paying for the Lake Street signal from these funds would absorb nearly an entire year of road maintenance.

It was never the Town’s expectation to cover the tab entirely from Chapter 90. Last year, the Town asked for a $400,000 grant for this project from the Commonwealth’s Complete-Streets program, the maximum allowed from a town in a year.

That grants program is a kind of carve-out of Chapter 90 funds for projects to make streets friendlier to “all travel modes.”

The vague wording has encouraged the Town to say that the Lake Street project qualifies (because, aren’t cars and trucks a “travel mode”?), and to claim that the signal will make the intersection safer for everyone. (For the record, it’s not especially hazardous, but there’s always room for improvement.)

However, the project was not funded this year. All of the winning grants were for more-traditional complete-streets projects, such as sidewalk improvements and bike lanes and traffic calming. (And all of them were for less money, though the proposal from the Town of Hanson came close.)

Had the money come through, however, the Town would still have had to make up the $300k difference. That’s a substantial sum, nearly half the Chapter 90 budget.

Back in October, Chapdelaine told Sprague, “we still need to work toward identifying additional resources in order to implement the project,” even if the Complete Streets funding comes through.

What does that mean? The missing $400k notwithstanding, the Town’s professional staff is pretty good at scoring state and federal funding for different purposes.

Also, if residents really want this project badly enough, it’s not unreasonable to think about asking them to pay for it, or at least some of it, though the property tax.

Hidden Losers

Lest we forget: the Town has a list of improvements that it would like to make with Complete Streets funding.

Arlington got off to a good start the first year of the program, using Complete Streets to fund pedestrian improvements (such as sidewalks) to Gray Street, a popular walking route to the Ottoson Middle School.

There are about a dozen more projects waiting on the list, many near schools and recreational areas.

Unfortunately, of these projects only Lake St. was submitted for funding this year, because it used up all $400k of Arlington’s annual grant eligibility. So when Lake Street did not get funded, none of the other projects did either.

The expectation was that Lake Street would be funded in fiscal 2018 just as Gray Street was in fiscal 2017, and that the next project or cohort of projects would be up in 2019.

Now the Town must decide whether to roll the dice on Lake St. again, with the consequence that other worthy projects would be delayed until 2020 even if Lake gets the nod next year.

Question: What will the estimated cost be in a year? In two?

Whither Lake Street Traffic?

Also at stake is the fate of a very congested road (at least at rush hour).

Although some have suggested that the proposed traffic signal will not deliver the relief proponents promise, no one says it’s fun to drive home from Route 2 in the early evening.

If state funding is not forthcoming, and perhaps even if it is, there will be pressure to “value engineer” the project to make it less costly.

I would expect to see things that people particularly like about the design at risk in such a process. The benches and landscaping may go the way of similar amenities that were originally included in the Mass. Ave. Project. Some safety features may also be on the margin.

Alternatively, perhaps the Town will be willing to explore solutions that are not as expensive.

For instance, the Brooks Ave. intersection is a real bottleneck today. Changing the timing and functioning of the signal there, and restricting left turns (from Lake eastbound onto Brooks) in the evening, might do as much or more for Lake Street commuters as a second traffic signal a half a block away.


9 comments so far

  1. alantauber on

    I certainly have not studied this situation enough. Two thoughts come to mind: cost of a human life and would this save anyone from death or harm on the bike path. Seems like the evidence points to no. But again, I have not put in the time yet. I’m sure more and more evidence will come out as decisions need to be made.

    Of all the things I have seen done for safety, increased traffic police and those really helpful, lifesaving red flags that someone created and implemented at a few points in East Arlington, both continue to keep us safe. And handheld flags and holders are really cheap or inexpensive shall I say. Worth their weight in Gold!! IMHO

    • Thouis Jones on

      Those flags are useful, but they are also strong indicators of a failure to design crossings for pedestrian safety. There are many places where crossing Mass. Ave. doesn’t feel dangerous and one doesn’t need a flag.

      Contrast that with the Lake Street crossing, where it _almost always_ feels completely safe to cross, even with a much larger prevalence of driver-pedestrian interactions . Drivers are generally considerate and patient, particularly when I’m crossing (each morning) with young children.

      I have to say *almost always* because just today, a driver stopped for us to cross, and while we paused to make sure the far lane was also stopped, gunned her engine and sped through as I and my two children were just starting to cross. Had one my kids been even a few inches ahead of me, they would have been hit.

      Maybe during rush hour in the morning and at school-release hours, there should be a time-operated stop sign and much shorter light cycles (for cars) at Brooks to keep traffic slower and give precedence to pedestrians, a large portion of which are children headed to school. Outside of those hours, nothing needs to be done – there aren’t enough cars and pedestrians interacting that anything needs to be changed.

  2. markk02474 on

    I hope CPA funds can be used ASAP to enhance the Minuteman linear park and recreation area with landscaping, sight line improvements, and some chicanes and/or other traffic calming methods to slow cyclists approaching Lake Street.

  3. Bob Sprague on

    For CPA funds to be used in this way, someone woukld have to first propose it to the CPA committee. The latest plan is to be presented to selectmen tonight, and the Lake Street project is niot among them.

    • markk02474 on

      Thanks Bob. Too bad there isn’t a time for public comments and that almost the entire project cost is to be given to private corporations ($500k for Housing Corp of Arlington, $82k for Old Schwamb Mill, $72k for Arlington Historical Society).

      • Bob Sprague on

        Of course, there is time for public comment. You can attend selectmen tonight. It’s just the first presentation.

  4. Bob Sprague on

    I understand the CPA presentation was table because the presenter was absent. There will be another chance to comment. Watch the selectmen’s agendas.

    • Bob Sprague on

      “these issues” …

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