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I wanted to post this article on East Arlington. Interesting view on the proposed Mass Ave project.
Arlington resident Eric Berger takes on the Mass. Ave. Corridor Project
On a warm July afternoon, Eric Berger, 71, stands at the intersection of Pond Lane and Mass. Ave. He’s neatly dressed in shorts and a striped T-shirt with black socks carefully rolled at the ankle.
He carries with him a three-ringed binder. Inside, inserted into clear plastic page protectors, are copies of the town’s most recent plans for the Mass. Ave. Corridor Project, a proposal to transform a one-mile stretch of road from Pond Lane to the Cambridge border by reducing travel lanes in some areas, adding dedicated bike lanes and upgrading infrastructure.
Thinking about and talking about the project has become a fixture in Berger’s life. He estimates that he spends, on average, two hours a day working on – or more accurately working against — the town’s Mass. Ave. Corridor Project.
If you were to diagram the reasons Berger, a Hamilton Road resident, opposes the plan, it would look something like the map of a family tree: All of his concerns lead back to the removal of travel lanes. This, according to Berger, will mean increased traffic congestion, which he believes will lead to a myriad of things he’s not interested in seeing on Mass. Ave.: increase in idling, increase in CO2 emissions, poorer air quality, increase in side street traffic and an increase in emergency vehicle response time.
Taken together, the current plan, from Berger’s perspective, hinders and does not help improve safety along the corridor.
Berger, who moved to Arlington about three years ago to be closer to his children, was unaware the town was developing such a plan, and so did not attend the three original public hearings organized by the Planning Department in 2008 and early 2009. But he remembers the first time he heard about the project. It was around February 2009, and he was walking through a parking lot along Mass. Ave. when he bumped into someone he knew who began explaining the proposal to him.
“It didn’t make any sense to me,” said Berger, “and the more I found out, the more I didn’t like it.” Berger connected with other East Arlington residents opposed to the project including Maria Romano, Sheri Baron, Donna Janis and Laura Nastasi, among others. Together, they formed a group called the East Arlington Concerned Citizens Committee (EACCC), of which Berger is a member. As Berger looked more closely at the plan, he was unsatisfied with the proof presented. He was told that emergency response vehicles wouldn’t lose time if travel lanes were reduced, but Berger wanted to see data. He was told that a speeding problem existed on the one-mile stretch of road, but he found data that Arlington Police had written only eight speeding citations from August 2008 to July 2009. That’s out of a total of 652 speeding citations within the same year, according to the APD.
“That’s nothing,” he said. “It’s being manufactured.” And ultimately, Berger, like other EACCC members, wanted to see a pilot version of the plan enacted so that results could be collected and studied before construction started. “Without data, we’re going on faith,” he said, “and that’s not good enough.” One of the group’s first orders of business was to create a plan of its own, reflecting what they’d like to see happen on Mass. Ave. “We shared our concerns, we wrote letters, and we got nowhere fast,” Berger said. “We even developed our own plan, but we got no response. Nothing.” Berger isn’t completely opposed to the project either. In fact, he agrees that some of what’s proposed would be helpful: striping out lanes, improving the road’s infrastructure such as sidewalks or the road’s surface, getting rid of old traffic lights and incorporating street lights. But Berger believes the more sweeping changes of taking away travel lanes will do more harm than good. Berger knows he’s no engineer, he understands that. He characterizes his opinion as a common sense approach from his own observations and experiences as a driver. And he admits he’s taken a cynical approach to the project — one hinging just a bit on conspiracy theory. But after feeling cast aside and not listened to, his trust in town officials has deteriorated, and he’s not willing to let his voice trail quietly into the night.
Assembling the team
In April 2009, on the heels of the Board of Selectmen’s Mass. Ave. Corridor Project meeting at the Hardy School, which attracted hundreds of attendees, something changed for Berger. “I remember Mr. Greeley [Selectman Kevin Greeley] said something like ‘We’re going to do this plan,’” Berger said. “I decided I didn’t want to lose this … I was afraid that politics might override the safety issue.” That was the moment when Berger decided to focus his energy on the public hearing the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) will hold after accepting the town’s 25 percent plans for the project “Our best chance would be at the hearing,” he said. For months, Berger thought about what he should do — what he could afford to do. A retired educator from New York, Berger lives on a pension and Social Security. But he also had some savings, too, and Berger decided it was worth it to hire an attorney. In November of 2009, Berger found the firm Clark, Hunt, Ahern & Embry, which represents clients such as Allstate, Bank of America, Footlocker, Harvard University and Travelers Insurance Company. That first meeting, Berger said he met with Bill Hunt and Michael Rossi for an hour, pulling up the plans for the project on the town’s website and laying out his concerns. The firm agreed to take Berger on as a client. To date, Berger believes he’s spent $40,000 of his own money building a defense against the Mass. Ave. Corridor Project. “My philosophy is that you have to be accountable for your actions in life – that’s the essence of being human. You make decisions and you have to stand by them,” he said. “To me, this is worth it.”
An engineer of his own
The firm recommended that Berger look into hiring an engineer to take an independent look at the plans. So Berger hired Civil Works, an engineering consulting company based out of New Hampshire. “The firm is out of state, and so there is no conflict of interest,” Berger said. Dana Lynch, an engineer and one of the co-founders of Civil Works, interviewed town officials, spoke with officials from Cambridge, reviewed websites and data, participated in a site visit, and summarized the findings in a report dated March 17, 2010. That report, based on the original 25 percent plans the selectmen approved in August 2009, does not dismiss the project altogether, but does recommend that Fay, Spofford & Thorndike, the engineering firm hired by the town to design the project, provide more research and information. Specifically, Civil Works believes the design will create issues with traffic flow at signalized intersections, that FST’s plan lacks information on the impact it will have on side streets and on emergency vehicle response time. It also claims data on FST’s accident history is skewed. While FST claims that Lake Street/Winter Street hosted the majority of pedestrian and bicycle accidents between 2004 and 2006, Civil Works concluded that the stretch of road between Lake and Teel streets was more problematic. Civil Works also recommended a shared roadway for bicyclists rather than designated bike lanes. “The lack of bike lanes at either end of the project create a false sense of security for young or novice riders when that leaves them in dangerous circumstances that they might not necessarily anticipate,” the report reads. MassDOT has since commented on the 25 percent plans, asking for more information, and adding that its biggest concern was an increase in traffic congestion at signalized intersections.
Prepared to go all the way
More recently, Berger’s attorney Michael Rossi attended a Mass. Ave. Corridor Project meeting in June. FST gave a presentation to those gathered about the revising the 25 percent submission. When the meeting opened up to public comments, Berger was the first person to step to the microphone followed by Rossi on his behalf. Rossi relayed information produced by Gelinas & Ward, another law firm Berger has contracted to provide information on the history of Mass. Ave. Chuck Mariolis, an attorney with Gelinas & Ward, provided research on something Berger hopes will stand up in court, if it comes to that: Massachusetts General Law Chapter 82, Section 17 reads: “…a city or town shall not discontinue any highway or diminish the width thereof …” Berger believes Mass. Ave. is a highway and he believes the plan will diminish the width of the roadway by removing or altering the number of travel lanes. “Our position is that the town lacks the authority to diminish the roadway as a major thoroughfare that connects one town to another,” said Rossi, echoing the statute introduced to the state in 1891. Planning Director Carol Kowalski responded to Rossi after he finished his statement. “MassDOT said that changing the width of the roadway is not a problem,” she said. Rossi has since been in touch with Town Counsel Juliana Rice, providing letters asserting the same thing. “I don’t agree with his attorney’s reading of the statute. And I don’t agree that it’s the type of statute that can be evoked to stop a project like this,” Rice said, who questions whether Berger has the standing to even challenge this statute. “This is a state funded project operating under state guidelines, and the state has said that the project complies with those state guidelines.” That response, Berger said, is just not good enough. He doesn’t believe MassDOT has the authority to respond to this concern. And so he continues to push forward, to prepare for the eventual public hearing with MassDOT and to, he hopes, prevail. “This would give me the peace of mind that I helped do something good for the community,” he said. “And I’ll have that memory to live on in the later stages of my life.”
Staff Writer Nicole Laskowski can be reached by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2010 The Arlington Advocate. Some rights reserved
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