By Judy Locchi Jacobs
On Monday, September 24, members of the city administration and MBTA representatives met with residents to discuss details of the bridge closing at Ball Square planned sometime in January 2019.
The meeting was held at St. Clements, moderated by Mark Niedergang, Ward 5 Alderman and Brad Rawson, City Planner and Head of Transportation and Infrastructure in Somerville. There were less residents than the last meeting attended on September 11, held at the Baptist Church on College Avenue.
(Below you will find the link to that story for review).
Also in attendance, Alderman at Large, Mary Jo Rossetti as well as designated neighborhood representatives who can be contacted for information on GLX updates. If you need to find the name of your neighborhood representative, please contact Brad Rawson, at city hall for details.
At the beginning of the meeting, Brad Rawson stated that Mayor Curtatone would be in attendance. He made two more announcements that the mayor was on his way, but at the end of the meeting, he said the mayor must have been delayed at other meetings at city hall. It was confirmed, that Katjana Ballantyne and Lance Davis were at city hall for requests of appointments for Somerville Police and Fire personnel and they too were unable to attend.
Brad began fielding questions from residents. Some asked about the MBTA buses 80 & 89 and worried about their 1/2 mile walk to bus stops. Alderman Niedergang assured residents that there would be shuttles to bring commuters to bus stops if it was too far to walk. Mark added, “We can’t leave people walking a half mile to bus stops”.
It was also suggested that perhaps Tufts University could help with shuttles as needed to transport passengers to MBTA bus stops.
The problem I have with some of the dialogue among speakers is their quickness to blame the state when the questions get too difficult to answer. For instance, some residents persisted in asking why the entire bridge must be closed and for a 12 month period. Their answer was the state wouldn’t spend the money to make accommodations to the bridge such as creating one lane of traffic to be detailed by local police, nor would they provide a foot bridge for pedestrians and cyclists.
To note: Planned will be more traffic calming measures to include dropping the speed limit to 20 mph.
Some residents complained about the bump-outs placed on Cedar Street and have already experienced vehicles turning right on Cedar Street (from the bridge), that must go beyond their designated lane and into oncoming traffic. They have asked members of the GLX committee to revise or remove the bump-outs. There was discussion on the possibility of the removal of parking spaces on Cedar and other streets used for the detour. However, that has yet to be determined.
Bruce Rawson, attempted to encouraged residents by sharing, “Three short years from now, we will be on those trains”.
Residents continued with questions,and one asked, “Why does the bridge need to be closed entirely”?
Response, “The commuter line requires clearances at least 15-20 feet, abutments will be demolished, drainage and electrical must be replaced and why it cannot be done piece-meal”.
Concerns were raised about 4 bridge closures for a duration of 5 months or longer. (See attached diagram)
The College Ave. Bridge, (between Tufts and Cousens Gym) will be restricted, but not closed. It will remain open for members of Tufts community and residents, to include pedestrians and cyclists.
The meeting shifted back to Ball Square –One resident shouted, “Your detour is fiction, motorists will cut into side streets, mainly Willow Avenue and Morrison Avenue, and everyone will be using GPS for alternate routes”.
Trying to keep a positive beat, Brad continued, “Residents of the North Shore are not able to enjoy the conveniences of public transportation as we have and as a result, those who must rely on the Somerville roads are forced use our city in order to get to Kendall Square for their jobs”.
Well, to my knowledge, Cambridge had their chance to bring in a commuter rail stop in downtown Kendall and they NIMBY’D it right off the rails.
Some residents suggested changing Willow Avenue (intersection of Highland Ave.) to a one-way but in the opposite direction so those traveling to Cambridge would be able to get to work.
Towards the end of the meeting, I asked two questions:
(1) “If firemen deployed to an emergency call are contacting the station (as required) because they can’t get through traffic, what remedies will be in place to ensure they can access an emergency within a short period of time”?
Response: “We were assured that the fire chiefs are working on a plan”.
(2) “If we are already at $2 billion dollars for the GLX with $1 billion added to the budget, can you explain the breakdown of costs since we don’t see any work being done on the tracks”? We know there was a new contractor hired to replace the original contractor from the beginning of the process. It would be helpful to know details of the costs of the project. We are talking about a 4 mile stretch of above ground track, not digging new tunnels. How did we possibly reach $3 Billion Dollars?
A response was not provided.
Other voiced concerns by residents:
What commitments have been made by Tufts University to support the city during the GLX rail line construction phase including bridges and traffic mitigation?
Also how will they help with many other challenges we all face, including business effected by the Ball Square bridge closing?
Many will agree,Tufts University, which boasts an endowment of $1.7 billion dollars, has been the major stakeholder of the GLX project.
As a non-profit university, they have not paid real estate taxes for any of the 100+ properties purchased in the city, used to house Tufts students and for administrative offices. Nor have they paid sufficient amount of money in lieu of taxes as other surrounding colleges in the region.
An argument can be made that we don’t have the wealth that Cambridge has within their body of residents. The City of Cambridge had the great wisdom to entice an abundance of high paying commercial real estate owners to cover their municipal debt and have more than adequate source of revenue. Furthermore, resident taxpayers enjoy approximately 40-50% less in real estate taxes than Somerville home and business owners.
In my honest opinion, they didn’t put all their condo-eggs in one basket, they diversified their real estate in order to be fair and accommodating to their long time residents.
Let’s move on….with respect to the GLX project, we should be provided with more specifics on all that is being discussed at a variety of meetings.
One resident, Kevin Oliver who has great concerns about the plans of the bridge closing, shared, “The majority of residents this plan will effect do not come out to these meetings, about 10% do attend. There’s an upcoming election, pay attention. Willow Street is much wider and should be used instead of Cedar Street. Wait until the bridges are done before putting in the bump-outs”.
Mr. Oliver, a native of Somerville shared with me, his extensive work history including his experience working with Somervilles’ former Mayor Lester Ralph (1970-1978).
While working for the city administration, his career shifted from elementary school teacher to an alternate path as superintendent of highways and commissioner of public works. Later, he continued his career as superintendent of recreation and school business manager in local towns including assistant superintendent of schools in Swampscott, MA.
He was generous with his time in sharing his concerns about the plans for the Ball Square bridge closing, primarily, choice of detour for motorists, buses and commercial vehicles. Mr. Oliver, is concerned about all residents, especially his friends and neighbors as they try to get to their planned destinations; work, school, doctor’s appointments, grocer, etc.
Due to his vast knowledge working in the capacity of overseeing highways and public works, I was immediately impressed by his comments directed to the GLX committee. I knew he had the expertise to see this plan clearly. I asked him to share his ideas so that I could pass this along to residents who may be impacted by the challenges of the project.
Mr. Oliver worries about the inability for residents to access buses and considering the impacts of the target date January 2019, “the middle of winter”, he states, “and with the anticipation of snow storms”. Anyone who has shoveled out of our previous snow storms understands the problems that can arise and having a bridge closing, as he shared, “will most likely add to the challenges of traffic mitigation”.
I asked him what he would do differently if given the task — He said, “diverting traffic thru Willow Street, was a better plan and reversing the one way sign at the other end of Willow Street would help the flow of traffic for motorists heading into Cambridge for work.
It seemed to be a good idea, however we both wondered why this alternative was not chosen, instead of the planned Cedar Street option.
I asked if he knew of another case where a bridged was closed in Somerville and how was the construction and traffic mitigation handled.
This is what he shared:
Yes, the same bridge, Ball Square. This was the idea of Vinny Piro, former state representative in 1973, to replace the existing truss bridge. The bridge closing didn’t impact the city as I believe it will for the incoming GLX project and the city had more residents then, it does now. Traffic for that project was diverted to Boston Ave., Morrison Ave., then to Cedar Street. A footbridge was put in place for pedestrians so they could cross the bridge”.
We went on to discuss the other MBTA lines and their construction challenges and delays, the impact on the city while under construction. “The GLX”, he said, “had been discussed years ago, but never followed through due to disagreements by parties involved”.
Both Alderman Niedergang and Brad Rawson told residents there will be more meetings to discuss further updates of their plans to make the bridge closing a bearable process.
I asked that they consider holding future meetings at the high school auditorium so that all residents will have an opportunity to attend. Although the neighborhood meetings are helpful, I consider them insufficient. As a body, our city of residents should all be informed equally and to the extent they have the ability to speak at the podium to share their own personal concerns for their commute as well as their children and elderly family members. It’s evident that wherever we travel during the Ball Square bridge closing and other bridge closings– we must have a plan in place for alternate routes.
Alderman Niedergang ended the meeting with one message, “Not everyone will get what they want — it will be horrendous, and we will try to minimize its horrendousness, as much as possible”.
St. Clement’s Parish priest shared his concern for parishioners commuting to mass and how it will impact their ability to accommodate 100 funerals per year. The Chaplain and firefighter who supports St. Clements and St. Raphael’s, worries he will experience challenges trying to access his parishioners who are ill and at the last stages of life.
I find there are so many scenarios that most of us don’t even think about that could be effected by the GLX construction.
Feel free to add comments below of questions and concerns you may have and I will bring them to the next meeting.
We will continue to update you on GLX news as it becomes available.