Mass. Ave. Controversy

Summary      Controversy     Construction

The story of the Mass. Ave. Project (2008 – 2015, more or less) is convoluted and strange.

These are just some of the highlights; I also have written a brief summary.

Examining a draft street plan at a public design meeting in 2010.

The heart of the redesign was what is known as a road diet: swapping unneeded lanes of motor-vehicle traffic for safety features such as bump-outs, traffic islands, and bike lanes.

Before the Mass. Ave. project, the street could usually accommodate 2 lanes of traffic in both directions.

However, the lanes were not marked, and the fit was tight. Cars, buses, and trucks in the right “lane” needed to veer into the left to pass cyclists and pedestrians who were using the street or opening car doors.

Many residents initially saw the road diet as a radical change. They feared traffic jams, shuttered businesses, waves of cut-through traffic.

None of these things have come to pass.

Making things feel even scarier, the consultants delivered a first-draft design that was actually a kind of scoping blueprint to show what the traffic data said was possible.

It thus represented an extreme—the most change that was feasible.

This design, released in February of 2009, included removing 2 motor-vehicle lanes (1 each way) in some stretches. It was met with skepticism and was dropped within months.

But the controversy played out for years.

Response to Controversy

The official response in 2009, for which I give high marks, was not to hunker down, but to let it all hang out.

The Town opened up the process. It held many more additional public meetings, and responded to public comments with design changes.

The 2-lane scoping design, for instance, was quickly replaced with one very like the current street layout (though with a 2-lane option up by Wyman Terrace that was only changed at the last minute).

The 8-member town committee overseeing the redesign got an additional 10 “community representatives,” including 4 outright opponents.

They included the leader of the no-build group, Maria Romano, who would run for Selectman 4 times.

The next two meetings of the committee (6/16/09 and 6/24/09) were devoted to answering the opponents’ criticisms of the project.

In a nutshell: the demands of opponents conflicted with both state rules and the physical constraints of the street.

At that time, the opponents appeared serious and reasonable. They made no rejoinder to the information presented, though they had every opportunity to do so.

I thought they might reconsider their opposition, or at least rechannel their energies into constructive criticism.

No such luck. But in the long run, that didn’t matter.

Refining the Plan

Abandon every hope

Lake Street and Mass. Ave. (August 2009 proposed), detail from the Town’s web page.

There had been widespread skepticism about the scoping design made public in February of 2009, but it was only a draft. That plan was quickly withdrawn.

By August, the Select Board had endorsed a different design very like what we have today.

The design was subsequently rejected by Mass Highway for reasons that were never very clear. The design was then tweaked (with lots of public input), resubmitted, and accepted, after more public meetings.

I wrote about such issues as

I based my reports on actual site visits when possible, such as this observation of rush-hour traffic.

Lucy Delgado and William Dotson died in Mass. Ave. crosswalks during this debate and the construction period. Many of us were upset and outspoken. The cars drove on.

A car drives by as people hold signs asking drivers to slow down and be careful.

Blaming Bicycles

The opponents, meanwhile, started to get a little odd.

They were fanatical bicycle haters.

They lobbied Mass. Highway and, later, the U.S. Department of Transportation against the project.

They warned of Byzantine conspiracies.

They campaigned not against the approved design but against the short-lived draft from early 2009, which was no longer at issue.

As time went on, they traded what political capital they had for base-pleasing stunts such as clueless Town Meeting votes (the second time as farce).

There were promises of mass demonstrations, threats of law suits that never materialized, criminal complaints that alleged no crimes.

There was a cynical nonbinding ballot question that, predictably, had no impact on the project. How could it?

Man speaking at microphone in auditorium filled with people

An opponent speaks at one of the public hearings on the Mass. Ave. project.

But back in 2010, I bent over backwards to give opponents the benefit of the doubt.

Key Issues

In other reports I explored issues explained in the project’s Functional Design Report from the engineers, including letter grades for traffic.

The report also showed that drivers often treated the road as 2 lanes because it isn’t wide enough for 4. (The redesign made room for 3.)

This key point would be front and center again at a 2011 design hearing on the plan. There were several of these hearings, and they really motivated people to come out.

I even was so bold as to make some predictions in 2010 about what would ultimately happen. I did not do too badly as a soothsayer!

After all this, the actual construction phase was almost anticlimactic.

I did not start this blog until things were under way in late spring of 2009. At about that time the Town’s Transportation Advisory Committee prepared a synopsis of Mass. Ave. – related events as far back as 1996.

The Mass. Ave. Project was the direct cause of this blog. It will be years  before we can evaluate it fully. But so far, so good.

I may still write about the Mass. Ave. Project, in a lessons-learned kind of way, from time to time.

If you want to discuss the controversy, please do so in comments to this related blog post.

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