MIDDLESEX - Unsated by a slimmed down public review process, Reading officials and citizens alike questioned the state's decision earlier this month to move ahead with a so-called "road diet" experiment along Route 28.
In recent weeks, residents in Reading, challenging whether the wholesale realignment of the community's most important vehicular artery still makes sense, protested the Mass. Department of Transportation (MassDOT) decision to move ahead with the traffic calming plan despite substantially lower commuter volumes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Town abutters to the project, many of whom are just finding out about the plan for the first time, are also lamenting the lack of a public vetting process, which for MassDOT projects normally includes a series of public hearings and informational sessions.
"Why are they reducing the number of lanes for traffic on Route 28 with no input or hearings from the public? Input into a website is not sufficient mechanism for input, in my opinion," commented Reading resident Mike Monahan in a recent email to the community's Select Board. "I am very opposed to anything that makes traffic worse on Route 28."
"I attended the first non-publicized road diet meeting. There were only a small handful of abutters in attendance, as it was not advertised. We were assured nothing would happen until there was a public hearing," Reading landowner Bobbie Botticelli vented in another recent complaint to town officials.
Under the proposal, Route 28/Main Street, the primary north-south corridor that runs through Reading's downtown area from Stoneham and North Reading, will be temporarily transformed from a four-lane undivided highway to two, one-way lanes divided by a middle turning lane.
MassDOT, which retains jurisdiction over Route 28, is performing the experiment as part of a $7 million repaving project along the entirety of Reading's portion of Main Street.
Transportation officials, who cancelled a series of public gatherings in late March and early April regarding the project due to the COVID-19 emergency, say the abbreviated upfront review will be complimented by a modified "virtual feedback" process during the entire course of the months-long study.
Data integrity concerns
Though the exact configuration is changed up along several sections of Main Street to account for high-traffic intersections, the general aim is to slow-down vehicular speeds and reduce accident rates. State planners say dropping down to a two-lane alignment with a central turning lane and wide shoulders for cyclists is more than justified given existing Route 28 accident rates, which are more than twice as common than regional averages.
"With fewer lanes, speeds are reduced. And lower speeds lead to fewer fatalities and lower injury rates. Also as speeds are reduced, the severity of accidents is also reduced," explained Andy Paul, a MassDOT design engineer, in what was the state agency's first-ever "virtual" informational session for a transportation initiative on April 10.
"Within the project area, we analyzed the crashes taking place on Main Street. Throughout District 4 in Mass., which includes municipalities north of Boston all the way to the New Hampshire border, the average crash rate is 3.23. What's observed on Main Street is a crash rate of 8.17," Paul continued.
MassDOT's general contractor began preliminary milling work along sections of Main Street this week to prepare for the eventual re-striping of the roadway. The temporary layout changes are expected to last at least until next September, when the state will decide whether to make permanent the design changes.
During a virtual meeting last week, Reading Select Board Chair Mark Dockser and board member Vanessa Alvarado both argued that the beginning of the MassDOT effort couldn't have come at a worse time, as public outreach about the initiative coincided with the start of the state's novel coronavirus crisis.
"This came upon us kind of quickly. I think even in COVID-19 time, it was pretty quick," said Dockser, referencing the massive economic and day-to-day life changes brought about by the virus outbreak.
Though readily conceding state officials had tried their best to raise public awareness about the project, town officials suggested that drastically reduced traffic flows on Main Street would interfere with the road diet experiment.
"One of the issues raised [months ago] was a concern about traffic going in and out of [abutting] neighborhoods as people try to avoid Route 28 with this change," said Alvarado, referring to previous predictions that the changes to Main Street would force commuters to seek alternative routes. "But with traffic being significantly lower right now and the summer generally having less traffic, how will the study be conducted so we have accurate information?"
"Maybe we need to have a talk with them about how they're gong to evaluate the configuration based on the low traffic," Dockser later agreed.
Reading Economic Development Director Erin Schaeffer, who has been trying to coordinate the project outreach efforts with MassDOT, has already spoken to the road diet project managers about those potential data-validity concerns.
And though Schaeffer assured the Select Board that MassDOT is examining ways to take those traffic changes into account, she also pointed out that transportation experts had already examined reams of accident data and traffic counts along Main Street to get an idea of baseline vehicular movements.
Town Manager Bob LeLacheur later joined with the economic development director in urging the public to take advantage of MassDOT's online feedback tools, as there is nothing the town can do delay the project.
"There's not much comment from staff. It's a state project," said the town manager during last week's Select Board discussion. "This is an upwards of $7 million repaving project and this trial road diet plan was said early on to be an absolute requirement of [getting] that funding. So it's not optional. It's not something that can be delayed."
According to Schaeffer, the public's limited feedback before the project began has already changed the initial design of the project, as planned bike lane symbols are removed from the shoulder/breakdown lanes.
However, the state's plans to include 5-to-6 foot wide bike travel lanes on either side of Main Street are unchanged for the vast majority of the route — though pavement markings on those shoulders are no longer labeled as such.
There are several major intersections along Route 28 where state officials plan to break away from the model two-lane roadway with a middle travel lane. Those exceptions include the following:
• From the I-95 interchange to Summer Avenue, where the existing four-lane highway format will remain in place;
• On Main Street by Birch Meadow, where right and left and turning lanes will be added to Route 28;
• Route 28 between Minot and Ash Street, where a two-lane/one-lane configuration is planned to the MBTA tracks;
• The entire stretch of Main Street in the downtown area;
• Route 28 by Birch Meadow, where both right and left turning lanes are planned;
• Around the vicinity of Putman, where there will be two southbound lanes and one northbound;
• By Forest Glen Road, where left and right turning lanes will be added to the sound bound side of Main Street;
• And by Main and Brentwood, where a right turning lane will be added to the southbound lane, while a left-turn lane is added to the northbound travel direction.
Those looking to provide feedback about the Route 28 proposal can visit the MassDOT website at https://www.mass.gov/route-28-in-reading-resurfacing-and-road-diet-pilot, where interested parties can view the revised Main Street alignment plans, submit comments to the project management team, and view videos explaining the rationale for the undertaking.