Photo: 2014 map of the proposed community path. (Town of Belmont)
By Jarrod Goentzel and Phil Lawrence, co-founders, Friends of the Belmont Community Path
Dear Belmont Selectmen and Town Leaders on the Community Path Project Committee,
We appreciate the Board of Selectmen efforts to maintain momentum on the Belmont Community Path by making decisions to facilitate the next phase of design. We acknowledge that the 2-1 decision at the Feb. 25 meeting to recommend the route on the south side of the tracks from Brighton Street to Alexander Avenue followed careful deliberation and support from the Community Path Project Committee. Given that significant uncertainties remain for that section, we applaud the Selectmen’s decision to make this recommendation contingent on further due diligence of the southern route and to confirm the viability of Contingent Route number one on the north as a ready alternative.
This period of due diligence is crucial. Selecting a route that ultimately cannot be designed or built due to insufficient town funding, environmental risk, broad public backlash, or other issues may cause Belmont to miss the federal funding opportunity. The Selectmen’s decision justifiably emphasized the feasibility study and its recommendation, which Pare Corporation did not change at the February 25 meeting based on recent information. The Selectmen also had to rely on personal judgment for issues where the study was incomplete. We suggest that the board to quickly assess additional evidence as it arises given the urgency of the design funding request to Town Meeting in May.
As part of this due diligence, we review below the evidence regarding five key points discussed on Feb. 25 to identify areas where the feasibility study is incomplete and where the Selectmen’s judgment must be applied.
1. The feasibility study recommendation is based on a slim 76-75 difference in score between the Recommended Route (South) and Contingent Route #1 (North).
It is important to note that during the Feb. 25 meeting, the score advantage for the southern route was mistakenly reported as 70-63 (which are actually the scores for the E3b and E3a sub-sections, respectively). The difference in composite score, which considers the alignment of all segments along the route as the basis of the route recommendation, is only 76-75. This extremely narrow margin justifies the BOS confirmation regarding the viability of readily switching to Contingent Route number one if due diligence raises concerns with the recommended route.
2. The feasibility study did not consider acquisition and environmental permitting costs for the Purecoat North/Crate Escape location that are required on the southern route for an easement.
The feasibility study only estimated costs for construction, operations, and maintenance, which would almost entirely be covered by federal funds. The study did not consider the costs for right-of-way acquisition or environmental permitting, both of which must be borne by the town. Discussion on Feb. 25 revealed incomplete information regarding the options and associated costs. The Selectmen wisely made their decision contingent on further due diligence.
3. The feasibility study did not assess environmental risks associated with the Purecoat North/Crate Escape location on the southern route.
Excavation for the path poses an extremely high risk for Chapter 21E environmental cleanup at the only location in Belmont tracked by the EPA as a toxic site. Belmont taxpayers deserve clarity on the potential costs and future risks associated with the recommended route and clarity on how the board would fund these incremental costs given the town’s financial constraints. The Selectmen wisely made their decision contingent on further due diligence.
4. The feasibility study could not consider utilization of the Belmont High School property while under redesign.
The southern route runs through the high school campus, resulting in many positive aspects noted on Feb. 25. However, there are potential opportunity costs in using this property (e.g. lost field space or parking) and operational costs (e.g., security monitoring of a public pathway through the open campus). The Belmont School Committee has not yet taken a vote on this route. The Selectmen wisely incorporated approval by the School Committee as a contingency.
5. The feasibility study recommendation and the recent Pare Corporation review of recent information ignore persistent public concern with the railroad crossing and state agency preference to avoid the railroad crossing.
The feasibility study analysis of the at grade Brighton Street crossing (segment E4a) did not distinguish a northern route crossing of the STREET ALONE from a southern route crossing of the STREET AND RAILROAD. This distinction is important for two reasons:
- Public opinion: The study assumed double weights for all User Experience criteria based on clear public input. Recent public feedback centered on the difference in User Experience of a railroad crossing. With no distinction in scoring for E4, the feasibility study fails to incorporate persistent public concern with the at-grade railroad crossing.
- The study assumed any MBTA rejection as a fatal flaw. Although he stopped short of rejecting the railroad crossing during the January 28 meeting, John (Jody) Ray from the MBTA stated: “the MBTA would always prefer that every crossing was a separated crossing, either below or above the tracks.” Michael Trepanier from MassDOT echoed this sentiment, saying “one fatality is always one too many”. With no distinction in scoring for that crossing, the feasibility study fails to incorporate the clear preference for the northern route Brighton Street crossing by the MBTA and MassDOT.
The Board of Selectmen’s judgment should consider that, given the feasibility study’s emphasis on User Experience and MBTA perspective, the composite score for the northern route would have scored higher and been recommended if there had been distinct scoring for the Brighton Street crossing.
The Selectmen recommended the southern route with contingencies regarding unknown right-of-way property issues and school preferences. The 60-day contingency period may not allow for proper due diligence with property owners to determine realistic acquisition costs or reasonable environmental risk assessment. The Board of Selectmen should only proceed with the design of the southern route if they can disseminate sufficient evidence to address the budgetary and environmental risks for Belmont residents and the safety concerns for future users whose federal taxes would build the path. If proper due diligence cannot be completed prior to the Town Meeting in May, then you should not stall momentum on the Belmont Community Path with further delays to gather more information.
Meanwhile, there is no reason to delay. Evidence indicates that the contingent northern route is not only viable but also preferential when incorporating public and state agency opinion regarding the railroad crossing. With no right-of-way acquisition or potential EPA cleanup, the cost for Belmont is lower. We recommend that you reduce risks, lower costs, and avoid delays by promptly exercising the northern route contingency.
Note: To date, the Friends of the Belmont Community Path has focused on providing information to educate and encourage discourse among Belmont residents. Given the high priority for MassDOT to add this critical link in the Mass Central Rail Trail and use of federal taxpayer funds to build it, we plan to invite engagement with the wider community in advocating for a safe, off-road path.