By Chuck Tanowitz
The biggest transportation construction project to touch the Newton and Needham area in a generation is now planned and set to begin in 2019.
At a series of public hearings held in both municipalities in January, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation unveiled its design for a renovated Needham Street/Highland Avenue corridor and announced that construction is slated to begin in the fall of 2019.
MassDOT expects the project to wrap up in 2022. In all it will cost $22 million with $16 million of that going straight to construction costs.
The project stretches for more than two miles; starting at the junction of Winchester Street and Route 9 in Newton, and extending down Needham Street, across the Charles River onto Highland Avenue in Needham and ending at the intersection at Webster Street.
Along the way it touches multiple historic sites, including the Evergreen Cemetery, the Saco-Pettee Mill Building and the bridge over the Charles.
MassDOT set out on the project with a series of key goals, including improving walkability for pedestrians, reducing conflict points for cars, improving biking and making sure that transportation has a key role on the street.
Of course, engineers had to do this on a road with limited space, while also committing to keeping at least one lane open in each direction throughout construction.
Even with the time and money put into the project, it’s important to note that this is not about making the street wider to accommodate more cars. Instead it’s about making it safer and easier for more people to access the area no matter which mode of transportation they choose.
For the state this presented a huge challenge, as the road has little room to expand and within the limited space they had to make room for everyone.
Alan Cloutier, a traffic engineer with Stantec who is working on the project, joked that only increasing the road to five lanes would create any meaningful impact on car congestion, making it a stretch of asphalt from building to building. Even then the road would likely fill in again with motorists using it as a cut through between Routes 95 and 9. Worse, it would only tackle one of the many goals the state faced, Cloutier said.
The result is a street that will have two driving lanes, a central lane for left turns, sidewalks for pedestrians, raised bike lanes for cyclists and clear places where MBTA buses can stop. The number of curb cuts that currently contribute to the slow traffic and challenges for pedestrians and cyclists will be reduced.
The historic bridge over the Charles River will have two lanes heading into Newton and one lane headed into Needham as well as improved sidewalks and railings.
DOT traffic engineers acknowledge that the project required compromises. In some locations the state settled on a shared-use path instead of separate bike lanes and sidewalks. It also means that some pedestrian crossings will have warning lights alerting drivers to people who are crossing instead of full traffic lights.
At the public hearings some attendees expressed frustration that the utility wires were not moving underground. Project Manager Tom Currier noted that there simply is not enough room, money or time to make undergrounding a reality.
It’s estimated that moving wires underground can cost upwards of $1 million per mile, but also amounts to providing an improvement to the private utilities at the state expense, an improvement that the state is not willing to offer.
Attendees also hoped to see plantings, increased parking and other items that fall out of the scope of this particular project and will become the responsibility of the two municipalities and property owners.
One item that may be updated before the project begins is a second look at accessibility on the raised bike lanes and sidewalks. The state designed the paths as an 11-foot area divided into two 5.5 foot widths of asphalt and concrete, separated by a strip of granite. The concept is ADA-compliant and is designed so the visually impaired can feel a change in the path to indicate whether they are on the sidewalk or in the bike path.
Residents with guide dogs noted that the dogs often cannot sense the change in materials underfoot and could be at risk of moving into the bike lane. Worse, bikes can often scare service animals, rendering them unable to work. MassDOT officials said they would look for solutions to this issue.