After many meetings looking at the proposals to reconstruct Mt. Auburn Street, including the controversial road diet, the Town Council voted to approve the preliminary designs Tuesday. The project now moves to the state transportation officials for their input, but there are still many steps before it becomes a reality.
The Town Council’s Public Works subcommittee recently held two meetings to take a closer look at the plans for the major corridor through town, particularly focusing on Coolidge Square and the business district near the intersection with Common Street. Residents and business owners had a lot of concerns, ranging from reducing the lanes from two to one each way, loss of parking and loading areas for businesses, and bicycle and pedestrian safety.
On Tuesday, Councilors weighed whether to approve the plans recommended by the Public Works Committee, and send them to the state’s Department of Transportation (MassDOT) for the 25 percent design review. This is one step along the way toward getting state funding for the project and sign off from the MassDOT for the project on the Mt. Auburn Street, which is also state Rte. 16. Construction of project will not likely begin until 2022.
The most vocal opponent to the project on Council has been East End Councilor Angeline Kounelis. She continued to express her opposition to the plans, including the road diet — reducing the lanes of traffic from two to one in each direction — and the impact to businesses in Coolidge Square. She said she is not against road diets as a concept, she has big concerns about its use in Watertown.
“I do not support the road diet through the Mt. Auburn Street corridor,” Kounelis said. “I received comments from retailers that this is a done deal, and businesses feel they are collateral damage.”
Kounelis also read a letter she had sent to Town officials and the design team working on the Mt. Auburn Street project. Read it by clicking here.
Councilor Lisa Feltner, who represents the district that includes the business area near Common Street, said she has also heard from many worried business owners and residents about the impact of the proposed changes. In particular, the loss of parking in front of businesses on Mt. Auburn Street caused by moving bus stops and enforcing new federal road design rules that do not allow parking in intersections, both of which impact the area near the Hair Cuttery and Pet Haven Animal Hospital.
The town should look at some other recent road projects, such as the project in front of businesses on Arsenal Street near the new apartment projects. She recommends having construction mitigation for businesses and working closer with business owners.
The decision was a tough one, Feltner said, but in the end she supported the project.
“I do try to listen to everybody, but I have to balance that with what I know and with what the staff is doing,” Feltner said. “Some of the changes people are going to like, and they will not like some of them. I am resident of area as well. I have a lot of empathy of what people are going through.”
Councilor Susan Falkoff shared similar concerns.
“Since I have been on the Council, a priority has been to value and support our small businesses and small business owners,” Falkoff said. “I have some real concerns about how this project impacts our businesses.”
She added that she hopes the Public Works Committee continues to hold meetings to hear from local businesses and residents as the project moves along.
Councilor Tony Palomba, a member of the Public Works Committee, said he is sure that there will be more meetings.
At first, Councilor Antony Donato was skeptical about the road diet because, he said, common sense would be that traffic would move faster with two lanes than with one. However, looking at the efficiency, partially from improved traffic signal technology, he has been convinced to support the project.
“Another aspect I hear a lot of is, ‘You can’t just take into account that there will be state funding.’ Well at last estimate it is $22 million. That’s a lot of money,” Donato said. “If the town forgoes that, and even just repaves Mt. Auburn Street, it would be a huge expense and we would not gain all the improvements to the traffic lights. Now, the (traffic) technology in Watertown is very dated.”
Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli, who also chairs the Public Works Committee, said he has heard a lot of comments that the project, and specifically the road diet, is being done to meet the Complete Streets concept. He said that there is no one-size-fits-all plan for Complete Streets.
“We need to accept what the limitations of the right of way and finally need to evaluate the tradeoffs of various street designs on auto drivers, to transit passengers, the bicyclist and the pedestrian, so they have a perception of quality of service provided by the street,” Piccirilli said. “We attempted to make sure that we meet each of those objectives. We are not going to be able to meet everything that everyone wants. We need to think of the bigger picture.”
Town Council President Mark Sideris said he supported the project with some trepidation after hearing people’s concerns.
“I too have concerns about businesses, residents and bus stops, but I think this is a step necessary to move the project forward,” Sideris said. “We will continue to work with the Public Works Committee, continue to try to reach out. We will have meetings to try to address concerns.”
The Council voted 8-1 to submit the recommended plans to MassDOT for the 25 percent design review. Kounelis voted against it.