The City Council approved some property takings on Tuesday to make way for a $30 million federally-funded reconstruction of one of Watertown’s biggest streets.
With the easements in place, the City will be able to go to bid in September on the Mt. Auburn Street Reconstruction project that will be paid for by federal Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) dollars which are awarded by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT).
Most of the easements will be temporary, for a five year period, and a few will be permanent, said City Manager George Proakis.
“All easements allow for construction to occur on the Mt. Auburn Street Project,” Proakis said, who added later, “At the end of the day what will be accomplished here is a substantial upgrade to what is known to many as the bumpiest, most challenging road in the City right now, and we are going to create a much better Mt. Auburn Street.”
Public Works Superintendent Greg said the street will have more trees, bike lanes, be safer for pedestrians, and there will be better landscaping throughout the corridor. At community meetings, he said some members of the public opposed the idea of reducing the number of travel lanes from two to one each way, and some wanted raised bike pathways off the street. To make way for bike lanes on the side of the roadway require removing hundred-year-old trees, he said. There will be bike lanes most of the length of the street with painted buffers on at least one side.
While the easements last for five years, the actual impact to properties will be much shorter.
“In most cases the amount of time construction crews will be working in front of your house will be a couple months, even a couple weeks,” Proakis said.
St. Louis said he is hopeful that the project will not take the full five year.
“I am hoping that construction can be completed on a quicker timeline, hopefully four years,” St. Louis said.
St. Louis has been through TIP projects before, and said efforts have been made to prevent delays.
“From my experience the projects that languish are the ones that encounter utility issues mid-project,” St. Louis said. “As we have seen the last couple years, we have made sure that National Grid does get out of the way. I’ve done some supplemental water work that was not deemed necessary previously so that we can shut down the water main if necessary — so, gate valves are being installed throughout the corridor.”
One of the issues that could have complicated the project are the catenary wires above the street to power the MBTA buses. The T, however, has gone to electric buses that do not use the overhead wires.
During the project, contingencies will have to be made to keep the buses, and other traffic, moving.
“The DOT is going to have to work with the MBTA about what detours and bus stops have to be reworked,” St. Louis said. “All those details will be flushed out during construction. Are they going to work on the north side and then do the southern side, or block by block? We will work closely with them so that we don’t detour into other issues throughout town.”
When people hear about takings of property it can be scary, Proakis said. They often associate it with eminent domain projects.
“The term is used when (governments) acquire property for public purposes, for public projects,” Proakis said. “We are not taking something where we are taking someone’s house and tearing it down, or taking someone’s business,” Proakis said.
The vast majority of them are actually temporary, Proakis said, and rhere are only a handful of permanent takings.
The easements are needed where someone’s driveway, lawn, or other property will be impacted by the construction. Any property physically altered will be returned to the condition where it was before the construction, St. Louis said.
“If we have to swing a hammer in the air over a property, we are required to get an easement,” he said. “If we disturb grass we have to replant the grass in-kind.”
For some projects, the City will negotiate with property owners. However, with time being a concern and so many properties where easements are required, the decision was to go through the full Chapter 79 process for the takings, said City Attorney Mark Reich of KP Law.
The range of size of the takings will be from 10 square feet to “a couple thousand square feet,” St. Louis said. The payments will be as small as $100, and a lot will be a few thousand dollars Proakis said.
Property owners will soon be able to pick up checks for their property takings, Proakis said.