The $30 million Mt. Auburn Street reconstruction project will likely go out to bid at the end of 2023, and the 75 percent plans will soon be submitted. City officials, however, are still waiting for the state to release the public comments from the 25 percent designs submitted back in 2018.
The project will be paid for by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) using federal transportation funding, but the design occurs at the local level, said Watertown Public Works Superintendent Greg St. Louis. The City also has to pay for the easements required to do work on private properties. Tuesday night, the City Council approved a $2.6 million loan order to cover the temporary easements needed to complete the reconstruction of Mt. Auburn Street.
“What that entails is several hundred temporary access easements,” St. Louis said. “Literally it is (needed) to swing a hammer over the imaginary property line to construct a sidewalk, so the Federal government requires you to obtain these permits because they know inherently if you are going to disturb a blade of grass or step on someone’s property to construct a sidewalk they want to make sure that that person is compensated accordingly.”
The Council approved the loan order, but had questions about the project, including when the public will have another chance to comment on the project, and if the Council will have a chance to weigh in on the project again.
St. Louis said the project will not come back before the City Council for approval.
“In my experience, the project doesn’t need to come before the Council for funding requests,” St. Louis said. “It is a state DOT project not a local road project. While we are responsible for the design, MassDOT is very much the project manager of this.”
Councilors Tony Palomba and Lisa Feltner both said they thought there would be more opportunities for public input.
“I am confused as well,” Feltner said. “I thought MassDOT would hold a community meeting, when everyone can ask for updates. They said it’s in the state hand they are going to hold a public meeting and they are going to have a functional design report.”
St. Louis said he expects the State to hold another public meeting, but they don’t need approval from the Council for the design or funding.
“We are trying to get the 25 percent comments posted, so at least people have an answer to their first question, so they aren’t asking the same question again,” he said. “I am hoping it will happen sooner than later.”
The public comments still have not been published, however, St. Louis said.
The 75 percent design incorporates what engineers heard from the public during the 25 percent design process in the summer of 2018. During those public meetings, people expressed concerns about cutting the road from two lanes to one for most of the length of the street, and including bike lanes for long stretches. Officials said that to receive federal funding the project must be designed for all users: motorists, bicyclists, public transportation users, and pedestrians. Another concern was parking for businesses, and how stores in Coolidge Square would unload trucks because they don’t have off-street delivery areas for trucks. (See more details here).
While the 75 percent designs take the comments in mind for the project, St. Louis said the public still does not have access to the comments from the 25 percent stage.
“The DOT’s responses to 25 percent comments, I have reached out several times to get that posted on the website,” St. Louis said. “The DOT controls that document. I’m trying to push to get it released, it is supposed to be released prior to 75 percent submission but there remain some entities in the state that remain to comment on our 25 percent design. The DOT is trying not to release the documents without those individual utilities having not commented.”
Councilor Nicole Gardner asked if the project will go ahead if the utilities do not submit comments. St. Louis said this is a unique situation, but he expects the project to go ahead.
“I am told this is the first time this has happened. Speaking with the assistant chief of engineering they are pushing this forward,” St. Louis said. “There aren’t a lot of $30 million road jobs on the TIP (Transportation Improvement Program). They are pushing this forward without those comments.”
St. Louis said the current schedule is to go to bid in December 2023, and award bids in January 2024. Before that point, the Watertown Department of Public Works has to submit the 100 percent design documents specs and estimates to the state. Those will be finalized in the next 6-9 months, he said.