A safer route on horizon
Nonantum Road plans take shape
After years of political wrangling, there is now a design aimed at making Nonantum Road safer and more appealing.
On Wednesday, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation unveiled long-awaited plans to reconfigure about a one-mile section of the road.
Nonantum, a narrow, four-lane road that winds along the Charles River through Brighton, Newton, and Watertown, has a long history of serious collisions and fatalities that many residents have blamed on drivers who exceed the 40 mile-per-hour speed limit. The road sees between 10,000 and 25,000 vehicles each day, said consultants from the firm working on the project, Fay, Spofford & Thorndike.
Under the new design, the state road would have just two 11-foot travel lanes for most of the stretch between Charlesbank Road and Galen Street, said Rick Corsi, a DCR planner. It may also include designated left-turn lanes for drivers headed up Charlesbank, Maple, or Water streets.
A new, 4-foot-wide paved median would divide traffic in each direction and help reduce head-on collisions, said John Michalak, a project engineer for the firm of consultants. A 2-foot-wide shoulder would be added to stretches without one, he said.
Whether to allow drivers to continue to make left turns from Nonantum onto Water and Maple streets was one of the plan's more hotly debated topics.
Michalak said removing the option would eliminate cut-through traffic and reduce accidents. Traffic records show that demand for such turns in the morning rush hour is limited, although it spikes to 150 cars each day during the evening commute, said Rick Azzalina, the firm's project manager.
Watertown Police Sergeant Joseph Deignan said the left turns are not necessary and contribute to most of the accidents he's seen during his 20 years responding to 911 calls from Nonantum. "It's a convenience to avoid traffic on Galen Street - and no more," he said.
Alderman Scott Lennon, who represents the Newton Corner area, said he travels on Nonantum every day and supports the no-left-turn idea, asking that it be implemented even before the project officially gets underway.
But several Newton residents, including city planner David Koses, oppose eliminating the left turns, saying the change would simply divert more cars into the already unbearable traffic gridlock in Newton Corner.
Azzalina said the firm will be studying how removing the left turns might effect both through and local traffic flow.
The plans also include a number of significant improvements for pedestrians and bicyclists, including a 10-foot-wide pathway along the river from Galen Street to just beyond Charlesbank Road; a new guardrail, lighting, and landscaping between the road and the multiuse path for added safety; removal of a chain-link fence and other barriers to the river; and the installation of sitting areas by the water.
Still being discussed are new crosswalks at Maple and Water streets; pedestrian-activated traffic signals at Maple and/or Water streets; and a full traffic signal at Charlesbank Road.
Bicycle advocates praised the planned improvements to the riverbank pathway, but urged the DCR to consider widening the shoulder from 2 to at least 3 feet to allow safe travel for commuting and racing cyclists, as well as those using light motorized vehicles such as mopeds. "A 2-foot shoulder lane is inadequate," said George Kirby, a member of the Newton Bike Task Force.
A study by MassBike found 84 percent of bicyclists ride on the road, said John Allen, with the state chapter of the League of American Bicyclists. Forcing riders onto the multiuse path would make it unpleasant for both cyclists and walkers. "You don't want these on the paths," he said.
The DCR doesn't have a cost estimate yet for the project, and is looking at several sources of state and federal funding, Corsi said.
"We haven't figured out how this is going to be built," he said. "The key is getting funding to implement this project. Once the money becomes available, we'll build it."
A transportation bond bill now before legislators on Beacon Hill includes $860,000 earmarked for the project, said Jonathan Hecht, a Watertown councilor whose district includes Nonantum Road. Even if approved, though, there's no guarantee that the money will be spent, he added.
The DCR will hold another public hearing in September, after incorporating public input and further study of the no-left-turn issue, said Corsi. If money becomes available, "realistically" the project could get started by fall 2009 and would take until about fall 2010 to complete, he said.