Monday’s second and final community forum on the proposed extension of the Minuteman Bikeway was more decorous and had a less emotional tone than the first.
Perhaps that’s because this one was on Zoom.
The format was identical: a 25-minute presentation by Select Board members Emily Mitchell, chair, and Shawn Hanegan, followed by questions, with Town Counsel George Hall serving as moderator. Responding were representatives of the Bedford Department of Public Works and the engineering firm VHB, bikeway extension designer.
The Sept. 29 forum, attended by more than 75 voters in Town Hall, filled its two-hour slot, and at times, sounded like a dress rehearsal for points to be advanced at the Nov. 14 Special Town Meeting.
Monday’s session was a 90-minute window, and it actually finished a few minutes early. Mitchell announced that there were 110 logged onto the Zoom webinar. Just before opening the meeting to voters, the Select Board chair pointed out that the forum was intended for voters to ask questions, and “statements on either side are better suited for Town Meeting.”
And for the most part, that’s what happened.
The community forums, as well as several individual and group meetings with project abutters, a detailed website section, and even a dedicated telephone line, are part of the Select Board’s efforts to resurrect the long-planned bikeway following an abrupt end to the project at Annual Town Meeting on March 28.
After voters approved $1.5 million in community preservation funds to acquire easements needed to complete the project, the vote to authorize the Select Board to spend the money fell short of the required two-thirds minimum. Subsequently, the Greater Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization withdrew $11 million in state funding while voting unanimously to restore funds when they become available if Town Meeting reverses the March outcome.
“We know this has engendered strong feelings,” Mitchell acknowledged before reading aloud the town’s guidelines for civil discourse. She noted that a recording of the forum will be added to the project website.
Among the points emphasized in the presentation by the Select Board members were:
- This is a state-funded project that originated with the town, beginning with a 2004 feasibility study and continuing with a 2010 Town Meeting vote to apply asphalt. Over the past 10 years, both the town comprehensive plan and bicycle and pedestrian master plan promoted non-vehicular neighborhood connectivity as a primary goal.
- The work is expected to take two construction seasons, she said, and during that time “the town will continue to have a seat at the table and staff on site to minimize impact on abutters.”
- The project includes an underpass for the trail at Concord Road and a shared-use path and improved crosswalk on Railroad Avenue, as well as drainage improvements there. If those were to be locally funded, the estimated cost in current dollars would be $3.2 million and $2 million, respectively.
- The town needs to own the Reformatory Branch trail to ensure access to utilities buried underneath. If the article fails, Hanegan said, “access to the trail will be in an ambiguous legal state.”
- The land the town seeks to acquire is already within the trail itself, “not in residents’ back yards,” Mitchell said. And “eminent domain is not something we consider lightly.”
- “The amount of asphalt used here is less than that used in one year of annual road maintenance,” Mitchell said. The stone dust shoulders reduce the potential for conflict between pedestrians and cyclists. She also noted that “the project has received all local, state, and federal environmental permits,” and “any local threatened species do not fall within project boundaries.”
Questions and concerns from residents were wide-ranging, from abutters’ liability (there is none, the town lawyers said) to cost overruns (the state agencies closely monitor costs, said Public Works Director David Manugian).
In answer to a question, Jeanette Rebecchi, the DPW’s transportation program manager, said the temporary easements marked on the extension’s 100 percent design plan “are in excess of what we need;” they are required by state agencies to ensure against inadvertent trespassing. Added Town Counsel Nina Pickering-Cook, “There is going to be no work done outside of the areas marked on the 100 percent plan.”
Bonnievale Drive residents expressed concern about the project’s potential for the impact on groundwater levels because of the addition of impervious surfaces and removal of absorbent vegetation. They were assured that drainage from the trail will be absorbed and there are no reasons to worry about increased flooding.
Mark Bailey, a member of the Bicycle Advisory Committee, asked how town officials are working with affected businesses such as the Bedford Children’s Center, located on Concord Road adjacent to the trail crossing.
Rebecchi said town staff has met with the owner and, virtually, with families to address concerns. When construction and bid documents are finalized, she said, “we can bake in certain language, such as noise monitoring and noise mitigation panels. We will do everything in our power to mitigate the impact,” including police details, help with traffic circulation, and dust control. She added that there is a “significant tree buffer” separating an outdoor play area from the work site.
Every construction project has a “downside,” Rebecchi said, which is offset by “the overall community benefit.”