Here’s what happened at the public meeting earlier this week. The Town and engineering consultants made a presentation about the goals of the project, the original and current designs, and the process and timeline. Then they opened the floor for public comment.
The most troubling changes to the design from the original concept is that lane widths have crept back up to 12-13 feet, the flush islands have been removed, and some sidewalks are not being widened as much (and in one case narrowed). The design still includes 5-foot bike lanes on both sides for the length of the project except the very end approaching Alewife Brook Parkway. The Alewife Brook intersection itself remains outside the scope of the project. So, at present it is pedestrian space that is being chipped away. As problematic as that is, I am concerned that if the “chipping” continues bicyclists will be the next group to sacrifice space to cars.
I’ll be blunt: the comments were divided between those who fear change, and those who embrace change. And there were many people there on both sides.
Project opponents focused on concern about traffic backups on Mass Ave and cut-through traffic on side streets. These concerns are certainly legitimate, but the Town has addressed them already. The engineering consultants responded to the traffic questions with an analysis that showed the redesigned road would have enough capacity for projected traffic volumes out to 2028. Because capacity is high enough on Mass Ave, there should be no incentive for people to cut through on side streets. The general response from opponents: “I don’t care what the analysis says – common sense says removing lanes will make traffic worse.”
One particularly angry man reported that he had hired his own engineering consultants and lawyers to fight the project. Then his lawyer presented a legal argument questioning the authority of the Board of Selectmen to “narrow” a state highway. The Town’s response: “MassDOT says this isn’t a problem.” Even if you accept this far-fetched argument based on an archaic statute, one response is the the Town is not narrowing the road, merely reallocating the space among various legally-recognized modes of travel. This argument overlooks that the road consists of the entire right-of-way from the buildings on one side of the street to the buildings on the other side of the street. The space is currently allocated among sidewalks, parking lanes, and travel lanes. The project is merely reallocating the same space, not reducing it at all.
Many project opponents laughed at a somewhat fanciful rendering of happy people and families strolling along a tree-lined sidewalk lined with busy shops and restaurants, but others said “what are you laughing at – that’s what we want!” The implication was that the opponents think East Arlington’s business district is just fine as it is and needs no improvements other than simply repaving the road.
One man actually stood up and said he moved to Arlington because it was more “car-friendly” and he didn’t want all the bicyclists slowing him down like they do in Boston and Cambridge.
Project supporters (including me) emphasized the need to make Mass Ave safe and welcoming for all modes of travel, and reminded everyone that state law and state and federal policy all require bicyclists and pedestrians to be accommodated. Some expressed a preference for fully separated lanes (like cycletracks), but the consensus among bicyclists was that bikes lanes of some sort were needed. Various speakers refuted opponents’ claims that bicyclists shouldn’t be riding on Mass Ave when the Minuteman Bikeway is nearby; that bicyclists riding now on Mass Ave was proof that bike lanes were not needed; and that education of bicyclists and motorists could address the safety problems without infrastructure changes. Several parents talked about fearing for the safety of their children when crossing Mass Ave or biking together.
The meeting simply concluded when the comments were done. The next steps will be re-submission of the 25% design to MassDOT, then a public hearing on the design after it is approved by MassDOT. At that point it will be very difficult to make any significant changes to the project, so it is critically important to get any remaining comments in now. Click here for official project information and contacts.