City Responds to Complaints About Highland Ave. Road Project

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Crews work on Highland Street over the summer as part of the ongoing road reconstruction project.

A combination of weather and challenges with contractors have delayed a major road project in Watertown, said City Manager George Proakis, but there are steps being taken to prevent such delays.

Last week, for the second meeting in a row, City Councilors got an earful from residents dissatisfied with various aspects of the Highland Avenue project. Many complained about the lengthy amount time that the project has taken to be completed (and more work still remains), and that sidewalks are often left torn up for an extended amout of time.

Others said their driveways have been narrowed after years of having wider entrances, and some were upset about the safety of school children crossing at Copland Street to get to Cunniff Elementary School and at Lexington Street heading towards Watertown Middle School. People also said they do not like the fact that when streets are repaved that sidewalks are raised and a planting strip with granite curbing is installed, narrowing the roadway.

Proakis said that he and the City’s staff are also frustrated with the construction issues on Highland.

“I just want to … say that together, we collectively share a frustration with the speed (of projects). We want to do streets in a certain time period, we want to get them in, get the done, get them done well, get them out,” Proakis said. “We have other projects lined up behind these to do and lately we have found there are contractors we hired that are slower, more disruptive, that take longer than we want them to and leave things in difficult situations longer than we want them to.”

Despite the difficulties with the Highland project, Proakis said he didn’t think it was “advisable to switch a contractor in the middle of a project.”

The Highland Avenue project has dragged on for multiple reasons, said Public Works Superintendent Greg St. Louis.

“We are aware there are a number of challenges, some of them are weather related, some of them are contractor related and we are certainly trying to work to reduce these things as much as possible,” St. Louis said.

The City must follow the state’s procurement rules when bidding for contractors to do road projects, St. Louis said. Those require the City to accept the lowest bid from a “responsible and responsive” contractor.

“Short of a community having written guidance or written submission to their procurement office or a history of negative work product, negative scheduling, failure to follow contract guidance — the community is generally required to accept that lowest bid,” St. Louis said. 

He added that the City can create a file on contractors with which it has had problems.

“If you have a paper trail that shows a contractor is being non-responsive, not following contract guidance, not following a schedule, creating a hazardous work set up, then you can allow that paper trail to be added to the file following the next procurement process,” St. Louis said. “Then you can work with your local procurement official to highlight that this community has had an issue with this contractor doing their work we do not deem responsible and they are no longer a responsible lowest bidder.”

Proakis added that the Department of Public Works has been trying to fill openings, and recently hired a City Engineer and is now in the process of backfilling the person promoted, who was overseeing construction management.

The issues with the driveways, however, is more likely to be an issue of whether it meets the City’s zoning rules. St. Louis said the zoning ordinance sets out certain criteria for allowable curb cuts for a driveway, including that only two are allowed per property, with a maximum width of 11 feet. Also, there needs to be 20 feet between curb cuts and the curb cuts cannot exceed 40 percent of the property frontage or 22 feet, whichever is less.

St. Louis added that the City sends notices about the project with details of the impact on their property before the project begins. Officials also typically walk the area of the project the spring before the work begins and they mark the areas with spray paint.

Proakis said that the City’s street and sidewalk policy follows the Complete Street philosophy which takes into account things like pedestrian accommodation and safety. Narrowing the asphalt roadway and adding raised curbs make streets safer, he added, by slowing vehicles and protecting people on the sidewalk from a vehicle going up on the sidewalk. The curbs also protect planting areas, and prevent vehicles from parking on sidewalks and narrowing the walking path.

When someone has a question or issue with the curb cuts in the design of a road project, members of the City’s Zoning Enforcement office take a look and make a ruling.

“I believe that I have in our Zoning Enforcement team, folks that are going out applying the rules, and applying them in a way that is consistent with the law,” Proakis said. “If you disagree there is an appeal process with the Zoning Board of Appeals to appeal their decision and say, ‘I disagree with their decision.'”

Property owners can also ask for a hardship and request a special exemption, or a variance to allow for a curb cut that is beyond what is in the Zoning Ordinance. The Zoning Board will consider the appeal or request, Proakis said, but they also are focused on the Complete Streets design.

“The Zoning Board is very skeptical of particular concerns that are going to increase curb cuts, put more cars across the sidewalk and not get us to a point where we are getting more walkable sidewalks, more opportunities for street trees, more opportunities for that green strip and that strip is part of the Complete Street Strategy,” he said.

Proakis added that he would be willing to go out to Highland Avenue to meet with residents, because he believes it is easier to understand what is going on looking at the situation in person, rather than discussing it at City Hall.

8 thoughts on “City Responds to Complaints About Highland Ave. Road Project

  1. There’s a particularly damaging aspect of Newport Construction’s management of roadwork on Highland Ave that isn’t mentioned in this article: the negligent execution of this project as it affects planned tree sites and existing trees.

    New tree pits marked on Watertown’s engineering plans were paved over. Soil has reportedly been pushed so high around a recently planted oak sapling that a concerned citizen wasn’t able to pull out the young tree’s buried watering bags.

    National ANSII guidelines for protection of trees during construction work are well established. I’m sure they’re reflected in Watertown’s current contract with Newport. Yet from the evidence on Highland Ave, it seems clear that in Newport Construction’s calculus, protecting the health and vitality of street trees still isn’t worth paying much attention to.

    I say “still” because this is not the first time Newport Construction has been cavalier about protections for Watertown street trees. Former DPW Superintendent. Gerry Mee banished Newport from Watertown after Trees for Watertown and other concerned residents documented the extensive mangling Newport dealt neighborhood trees in an earlier road reconstruction project.

    For the sake of our street trees, we really hope Highland Ave is the last job Watertown hires Newport Construction for.

    • Sad to say, they may be coming to Mt. Auburn St. to continue their carnage of everything. Of course it’s a State contract, so it would be very wise if people started the conversations not allowing them to be back here. Their performance of past speaks for itself!

  2. Typical. Obfuscate the situation, pass the blame onto other like contractors and hide behind rules and policies. We need a new City Manager that actually cares about our Watertown residents.

  3. The sidewalks have been walkable. They are making it impossible to park on the street and maintain a lane of traffic in both directions. This is nonsense. Moreover, this contractor seems to go out their way to block traffic.

  4. The big problem is that, to supposedly promote safety, sidewalks and planting strips are made wider. The concept is that with roads that aren’t as wide, cars have to go slower, but the reality is, that with roads that aren’t as wide there is no room for cars to swerve when a child walks into the street. Wide roads mean kids don’t get hit. Planting strips mean pedestrians are targets. Widen the roads so they are safe!

    • Let’s not forget about the possibility of snow banks making a return this winter further chocking the street. So if the grass strip is supposed to prevent runoff of harmful chemicals or vegetation reaching storm drains, when certain landscapers appear and blow all that stuff into the street and leave, how effective is that grass strip! Public Safety should be held in higher standard then the useless strip and expensive granite curb, that if eliminated, every street in Watertown could’ve been paved.

    • These assertions have no basis in reality. Try reading into the research, like this Johns Hopkins study from this year:

      “The most important takeaway from this national study is that in all scenarios we tested, we found no evidence that wider lanes are safer in term of non-intersection crash occurrence.” (crashes include all types of crashes including pedestrians, not just car-to-car crashes)

      “The difference becomes noticeable once lane width is changed from 9 feet to 12 feet which, in fact, increases the number of crashes. This is most likely due to the fact that in streets with 12-foot lanes, drivers have more space within travel lanes and there is a lesser risk/punishment for driving errors which (in turn) increases the driving speed”

      “More specifically, of these candidates, those that have lower traffic volume (AADT),
      no or small proportion of on-street parking, low degrees of street curvature, fewer
      numbers of lanes, and with no travelable (raised) median are the best candidates for
      the lane width reduction projects, according to our study.” — streets like Highland Ave meet a lot of these criteria.

  5. The real problem is the planning of this project. Letting people keep the driveways that they currently have has no negative affect, but taking away access to peoples driveways forces people to park on the road in a town where parking is already a big issue. This, along with road congestion and the city managers false sense of safety when it comes to narrowing the roads. Narrowing the roads does not make it more safe, but more dangerous. I agree that our city manager cares more about making himself look good by hiding behind city rules (that are enforced very inconsistently) rather than caring about the residence of Watertown.

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