The last phase of the state’s $483 million expansion of Route 128 stretches more than 3 miles between Needham and Wellesley. But it’s a short segment at the tail end of this Add-a-Lane project — less than a third of a mile — that is drawing fire from nearby residents and Newton city officials.
Nearly 60 residents packed a meeting last week to hear Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials and the agency’s engineering consultants explain why they are drastically changing the intersection of Route 128 and Route 9 in Wellesley at the Newton border.
State officials want to remove two of the four highway loop ramps between Route 128 and Route 9 and install traffic lights on Route 9 in their place to improve safety. State officials and their engineers say that it will reduce accidents on Route 128 as cars weave dangerously to get onto highway travel lanes and exit onto the ramps to Route 9.
“We have an opportunity to improve it, now is the time to do it,” said Lawrence Cash, a design project manager with the Transportation Department. He pointed out that there were two fatal accidents along that stretch of Route 128.
“Yes, two fatalities is high in a 10-year period,” he said.
But many Newton aldermen, and residents who live in that area, are concerned that the lights will create further congestion on Route 9 and will encourage drivers to take short-cuts through their neighborhoods. They said communication with state officials until last week’s meeting had been sparse and urged the transportation agency to come up with ways to ease problems in their neighborhoods.
Alderman Gregory Schwartz lauded the state for trying to improve safety on Route 128, but said, “We don’t want a new problem or to worsen an existing problem on our local roads.”
Louise MacDonald, who lives on Chestnut Street off Route 9, said it is already difficult to get her car out of her driveway at 3 p.m. because of the traffic going north toward the Massachusetts Turnpike. Additional traffic lights on Route 9 will make it worse, she and her husband, Ken, said.
“I don’t see this as the solution,” Ken McDonald said. “We drive on these roads every day.”
The Route 128 Add-a-Lane project is aimed at widening the highway. It starts in Randolph by Route 24 and arches through a half-dozen communities en route to Wellesley. The new lanes, between Randolph and Westwood near Route 109, were recently opened to traffic.
The purpose of the project is to eliminate use of breakdown lanes as travel lanes, replace aging bridges, and make interchanges safer.
Construction work on the section between the Needham railroad bridge and the Route 9 interchange near the Newton/Wellesley line is scheduled to begin in the spring and take four and half years to complete, Cash said.
None of the Route 128 work will take place in Newton. The most significant alterations are planned just across the border in Needham and Wellesley, but Newton residents and officials fear the work will have a significant effect on their roads.
State transportation officials did agree to conduct traffic counts of several Newton roads before construction begins to determine whether the project increases congestion.
But the state’s consultants said their project is unlikely to significantly worsen driving conditions on the local roads.
The state has already made some design changes after hearing initial concerns, Cash said.
For example, the Route 9 design now funnels cars out of the Wellesley Office Park on Williams Street and keeps it somewhat separate from through traffic after Wellesley officials raised concerns. A Wellesley police officer is currently assigned to the office park in the afternoons to help direct traffic onto Route 9 because the road becomes so congested.
If the Add-a-Lane project does create more problems on Newton roads, city officials and residents will have to decide what changes they want to make, from adding signs to installing speed reduction devices, state officials said.
Schwartz and other aldermen said Newton should not shoulder that responsibility alone. They asked for a greater financial and staff commitment from the state.
“That’s not something Newton can fix with a sign or some traffic calming,” Schwartz said.
The state’s solution “needs to be vetted more,” said Maureen Reilly Meagher, a resident of nearby Quinobequin Road. “I am not ready to accept the fact that we need to change the intersection.”