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ARLINGTON

Fight brewing on makeover for Mass. Ave.

By Christina Pazzanese
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2009

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Opponents of a $4.5 million plan to redo a 1-mile stretch of Massachusetts Avenue in East Arlington say they won’t back down, and vow to take their fight to state highway officials.

“We don’t know why you’re not listening to us,’’ Joe Connors, a member of the East Arlington Concerned Citizens Committee, told selectmen last week just minutes after the board voted 4 to 1 in favor of sending preliminary design plans to the state Highway Department for review. “This plan is dead on arrival.’’

The plan calls for reducing much of the four-lane roadway to two lanes from the Cambridge line to Pond Lane in order to add dedicated left-turn lanes and two 5-foot-wide bicycle lanes. It also shortens crosswalk distances with curb extensions and widens sidewalks to add flourishes like landscaping, street furniture, and new lighting.

Opponents say the changes would make an already intolerable situation far worse.

With more than 1,000 vehicles per hour clogging sections of Massachusetts Avenue during peak morning and evening hours, traffic jams caused by the new restrictions would prompt even more drivers to use residential side streets as shortcuts, they say.

Better to simply repaint the street’s traffic lanes and update the timing on traffic signals than to make major, more harmful changes, they say.

“We want Mass. Ave. to stay the way it is,’’ Connors said.

Of 60 area business owners polled by the citizens committee, 53 were against the changes, according to member Maria Romano. “That’s staggering,’’ she told the board.

Selectmen Kevin Greeley, the board’s chairman, Jack Hurd and Annie LaCourt said the town has held 22 public meetings over the past year to thoroughly consider and fine-tune the project to satisfy many competing viewpoints, and it is time to move the project forward.

“It’s a good plan, a balanced plan,’’ said Selectwoman Clarissa Rowe. “I think eventually this will be a project everyone is proud of.’’

The lone dissenting vote was cast by Selectwoman Diane Mahon, the board’s vice chairwoman, who said the town had not done enough to inform residents about the latest details or to fully explain how it will affect the surrounding neighborhood.

“I feel it could be a better plan,’’ she said. “We’re rushing this through.’’

Town officials say this section of Massachusetts Avenue historically has the highest rate of both motor vehicle accidents and crashes involving pedestrians and bikes, and is in dire need of major safety improvements.

The road was last paved 15 years ago, while its sidewalks and traffic signals are far older than that and in “tough shape,’’ said Michael Rademacher, the town engineer.

The board said it will submit the plans to MassHighway this fall for feedback. Once consultants refine the plan to address any issues it finds, the state agency would then host a public hearing in late fall or early winter.

The project is on the state’s transportation funding schedule for 2012, said Arlington planner Laura Wiener, who also noted that the schedule has not been finalized. Construction along Mass. Ave. could begin in the spring of 2012 or shortly thereafter, she said.

Members of the citizens committee said they intend to turn out en masse when MassHighway has its public hearing on the plan. They want to make sure their objections are heard, Romano said.

Group member Sheri Baron said much of the plan seems frivolous. New bike lanes “connect with nothing’’ in the area and ought to be scrapped in favor of painting “share the road’’ markings, she said.

And while proposed enhancements like new trees and planters filled with flowers, park benches, bike racks, and fancy new street lighting sound nice, she said, they “seem a little ‘pie in the sky’ ’’ for a town like Arlington.

“We’re not Portsmouth.’’

Christina Pazzanese can be reached at cpazzanese@globe.com.