Railroad Avenue Leads Panel’s Safety Priorities Lists

July 25, 2023
Staff Photo Wayne Braverman

Safety improvements along Railroad Avenue, originally part of the ill-fated Minuteman Bikeway Extension plan, are top priorities identified by the Transportation Advisory and Bicycle Advisory Committees.

Both volunteer committees agreed on priority lists at a joint meeting in June, and the Transportation Committee ratified them at another meeting last week.

Members also expressed concern about likely limits on expediting. Member John McClain said, “I wonder if we just need more capacity. We have this long list and it is sort of heartbreaking to have to whittle it down.”

“I think that’s something we can discuss as a recommendation to the Select Board,” commented Chair Dawn Lafrance-Linden. “I think we would love to have more resources and not to feel like we have to pick out so few out of so many worthy projects. Maybe we should discuss funding over the next few months and what advocating for a bigger budget would look like.”

The original list was provided by the Department of Public Works, and includes proposals identified in the bicycle and pedestrian master plan, now several years old. Now the recommendations head to the Select Board. “As road commissioners we will ultimately be charged with doing this work,” said Select Board member Margot Fleischman, who serves on the Transportation Advisory Committee.

For more than a decade, town and state agencies engineered a shared-use path and sidewalks along Railroad Avenue as part of the planned state-funded Minuteman Bikeway Extension. The discovery of privately-owned segments along the Reformatory Branch Trail necessitated a two-thirds approval to allow possible eminent domain takings, and town meeting in 2022 fell short of that threshold. The proposal was defeated again at special town meeting.

The top priority on the latest list of sidewalk projects that could be completed by DPW staff is a proposed shared-use path along Railroad Avenue, between the entry to the Reformatory Branch Trail and the Jenks Nature Trail terminus, across from John Glenn Middle School. There is currently a sidewalk on that route.

Simultaneously, the committees would like to see a crosswalk at the big curve where the street and the trail separate. According to Jeanette Rebecchi, transportation manager with the DPW, that crosswalk would require design by an outside firm.

There is also a subcategory of sidewalk projects that would require professional outside design, led by the north side of Railroad Avenue between the trail and the corner of South Road. It’s complicated by drainage issues along the route. A proposed mixed-use development at 1 Railroad Ave. could feature accommodations for sidewalks.

The committee also indicated that its top priority for changes to intersections is Willson Park – where The Great, North, and Concord roads converge. But town staff thinks it may be necessary to delay design until fiscal year 2028, with construction two years later, to avoid a conflict with the celebration of the town’s 300th anniversary. 

Lafrance-Linden noted that plans for improvements at the corner of Summer Street and South Road, related to an apartment complex approved for that area, should move ahead of Willson Park, as Rebecchi recommends.

“It is kind of shocking to see the time frame we have in mind,” said member Sandra Hackman, noting, “We’ve got this great analysis of optimizing Great Road traffic, and by the time we can fund it, it might be stale. That’s what happens with a lot of these things. I think there would be a lot of support for at least asking the questions.

Traffic specialists from Jacobs Solutions late last year presented an optimization plan to the Select Board focused on a series of intersections along The Great Road corridor. They recommended several short-term solutions that could relieve congestion, most of them involving traffic signal sequencing and synchronization. The report also detailed long-term design changes.

“I don’t think people have any kind of understanding about how projects get funded,” said Lafrance-Linden. “It would be a good thing for us to educate them.”

“I would like to know how much is a money problem and how much is limits on personnel,” observed Scot Shaw. “Even if we got an unlimited budget, I think it would be difficult to convince people to shut down every street in town that needs a sidewalk.”

Fellow member Sean Laffey said he was told by the DPW that it is at capacity on internal projects and would have to employ consultants, which would increase the cost of additional work. 

“We just went through the process of prioritizing. We as a committee are dismayed at the reality of how long it takes,” Shaw said. “We can ask for citizen input on how they feel about more town resources so we could go through the backlog.” McClain agreed that “we are constrained about how fast we can go through it.”

 “The hardest meeting of the year is what goes to the front of the line – because it means something else gets pushed back.” Shaw added, “And something at the front of the line means there might be a sidewalk there in eight years.”

Fleischman acknowledged that the town has been “very conservative with adding additional staff,” and even consulting engineers will ultimately lead to internal capacity challenges to manage projects. 

The committees’ other sidewalk priorities, in order, are 

  • DPW projects: Page Road between Shawsheen Road and Hemlock Lane; Hartwell Road between Concord Road and the Reformatory Branch Trail (actually a path); and Liljegren Way, from Concord Road to the high school parking lot
  • Projects that will require outside design: Concord Road between Lavender Lane and Davis Road (adjacent to wetlands); Davis Road between Hillcrest and Gleason roads; and Davis Road between Revolutionary Ridge and Hillcrest roads.

Hackman said she feels the current crosswalk arrangement at the corner of Old Billerica and Burlington roads is safe. However, she continued, extending the sidewalk on Old Billerica Road would make biking and walking safer.

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