When he stepped to the microphone before a crowd of more than 300 people in town hall Tuesday night, Eric Berger told state officials he had a 5-minute speech opposing Arlington’s plans to reconfigure Massachusetts Avenue.
But halfway through his speech a red light came on signaling Berger’s three minutes of allotted time was up and a burst of applause came from the crowd.
When Berger tried to continue, the applause strengthened and drowned out his voice until finally officials from the state Department of Transportation told him he needed to take his seat.
“I’m sorry, we have to let everybody have the same amount of time,” said Marie Rose, a project manager for the department’s highway division.
Two years after opponents to Arlington’s plans to reduce the number of travel lanes on Massachusetts Avenue made a boisterous showing at a hearing before state officials, the large crowd at Town Hall Tuesday night was noticeably more subdued and a strong majority of speakers voiced support for the project.
“Will everybody be satisfied? No,” said Selectmen Chairman Kevin Greeley. “But this is a good solution.”
The project has an estimated cost of $6.8 million and would reconfigure Massachusetts Avenue along a mile-long stretch in East Arlington. The road currently has two lanes headed eastbound and two lanes headed westbound, though the lanes are not marked.
Arlington officials have proposed a plan that would reduce the number of vehicle lanes, mostly on the westbound side of the avenue, in order to install bicycle lanes on each side of the roadway. The project will also include sidewalk and pedestrian crossing improvements.
After years of often heated debate about the project, state Senator Ken Donnelly, D-Arlington, said federal funding is drying up and it is time for the town to move ahead with the project before it loses its state and federal funding.
Federal dollars will pay 80 percent of the Massachusetts Avenue project, with the state is picking up the remaining amount.
“Most likely, we will never see this kind of commitment again, and it will be our town coffers that fix this road,” Donnelly said.
The Federal Highway Administration asked the state to hold the hearing on the Massachusetts Avenue project Tuesday to discuss changes in the project since the rowdy hearing two years ago.
Among the changes to the Massachusetts Avenue design since the hearing in 2011 was the town’s announcement in March of 2012 that it had decided not to reduce the number of vehicle lanes from two to one on the eastbound side of the avenue between Pond Lane and Linwood Street.
Tuesday, scores of Arlington residents spoke at the hearing and several cited the restoration of the vehicle lane on the eastbound side of the avenue as a good compromise in the plan.
Arlington resident Alan Jones said he was disappointed that the vehicle lane has been added back to the eastbound side of the avenue, but he’s happy with the outcome of what has been a 15-year effort to address problems along the roadway, including the death of two pedestrians hit while crossing the street.
However, opponents to the project are still making their voices heard.
The East Arlington Concerned Citizens Committee collected more than 3,000 signatures in a successful effort to get a non-binding ballot question on the upcoming Arlington town election ballot in April asking residents if they think Massachusetts Avenue should have four lanes as it does now.
Berger, who has been one of the leaders of the grass-roots group, said that reducing the number of vehicle lanes will cause gridlock. He said the town’s plans to reduce the number of vehicle lanes were developed in secrecy years before the plan was ever revealed to the public.
Maria Romano, who helped lead the charge for the non-binding ballot question, told state officials Tuesday that the project could have moved forward years ago if town officials had only listened to input from neighbors at the start of the design process.
“Fix Mass. Ave., don’t ruin it,” Romano said. “Keep four lanes and let bikes share the road.”
Rose said the design for the Massachusetts Avenue project is expected to be completed this summer. She said the construction is expected to last two years.
Written comments about the project can be submitted to the state within 10 business days of the Feb. 26 hearing. Statements should be submitted to: Thomas F. Broderick, P.E., Chief Engineer, MassDOT, 10 Park Plaza, Boston, MA 02116, Attention Project Management Section, Project File No. 604687.