Opinion: Five Facts That Need Examination To Determine Route For Community Path

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.

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  1. says

    Although I do appreciate this article, there is information that warrants clarification, to your comments.

    1.) “The feasibility study recommendation is based on a slim 76-75 difference in score between the Recommended Route (south) and Contingent Route (north)” it is important to note that during the Feb 25 BOS meeting, it was mentioned by Amy Archer the consultant from Pare that there is a higher cost ( 4 million additional) associated with the the North side option for the eastern segment of the path. She was also asked by Selectman Dash if she knew then what she knows now would she change the route recommendation and she said “no”.

    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”. Purecoat North owns the building, Crate Escape rents space from them. The part of the building in question is currently used for storage.

    3.) “The feasibility study did not assess environmental risks associated with Purecoat North/Crate Escape location on the southern route”. In 2007 Cambridge Plating/Purecoat North was part of a Public Health Assessment. The document was published by ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) at that time it didn’t show any significant health risks to the public. The company was also required to do test borings around the property including the back that runs parallel to the tracks. They were required to have a LSP oversee the testing, and it also showed that there was no significant ground contamination around the property at that time. If I recall correctly the land had limitations as to what it could be used for, (like no day care facility) but could easily be capped and paved, for other uses. No excavation would be necessary.

    4.) “The feasibility study could not consider utilization of the Belmont High School property while under redesign”. The southern route will not run through the High School campus, but rather utilizes a small section along the track side of the property that is currently lined by trees. It would have very little impact on fields or parking.

    5.)”The feasibility study recommendations 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.” Locating the path on the North side for safety reasons is an unconvincing argument as the same condition exists if the path were on the south side. No matter what side the path is on people are going to keep crossing the tracks to get there.The path through Belmont should meet the needs of the entire community ( safe accessibility to first responders, easy access to town amenities, multiple egress points, open, cost effective) versus a small group of individuals focussed only on a non-interupted commuter path.The funding to make it a reality will be there to make the connection, as Belmont is the missing component in the big picture, as stated by DOT representative at BOS meeting.
    Let’s make sure it’s done right with careful consideration given to the Brighton Street crossing no matter what side the path is on.

    • Jarrod Goentzel says

      Our focus is to educate and encourage community discussion, so thanks for your comments.

      1. The feasibility study did consider the $4 million higher cost on the North side that you mentioned and the score was still only 76-75. Importantly, this $4 million construction cost is almost certain to receive state/federal funding and will enable respectful mitigation and beautification measures to address legitimate abutter concerns.

      2-3. The feasibility study did not consider acquisition and environmental permitting costs borne by the town or mention environmental risks with path construction on the EPA toxic site. Both were key points of uncertainty during the February 25 meeting, and we are glad town leadership is pursuing answers before finalizing the route.

      4. The southern route does use school property and we are glad the Selectmen are letting the School Committee determine the impact.

      5. The at grade railroad crossing is a key point, and we were surprised that the study did not account for that in scoring. I agree that careful consideration should be given to the Brighton Street crossing no matter what side the path is on, and we were happy to hear the Selectmen say that during the meeting. But it is not correct that the southern route has the same risk since it requires ALL USERS to cross an active MBTA commuter line. In other words, it prevents users from accessing the path east using the safe underpass. I agree that some people are going to keep crossing the tracks. But to expand the January 28 quote by Michael Trepanier from MassDOT: “We recognize people can do this today; the path is there. What we don’t want to do is exacerbate a potential public safety issue. And one fatality is always one too many.”

      Given no additional funding and time to formally update their study, it is not surprising that Pare did not change their recommendation. But we expect Belmont taxpayers want to know that the town is pursuing a route with additional cost and risk when a feasible route using an easement established by MassDOT exists on the north. And we expect that all potential users want to know this route requires them to take a left turn and encounter speeding trains.

    • Phil Lawrence says

      Hi, Cindy. As always, it’s a pleasure to interact with you regarding our moving the path forward in the best possible way. And thank you for requesting clarification on the article. Please see the following for my thoughts on the clarification you requested:

      1) I believe the money spent on the norther route will provide a net benefit to the Belmont residents, because much of it will be used for beautification, screening, and correcting of systemic issues such as storm water drainage problems. Additionally, we hope that this is a cost that will NOT be borne by Belmont residents – because it will be construction costs covered by State/Federal funding. These two points make the northern route a win/win for Belmont. As for the Pare Corporation’s recommendation, I hope the entire article provides evidence as to why Amy’s statement to Adam was ill-considered and incorrect.
      2) Thank you for the clarification on ownership of the Purecoat North / Crate Escape complex.
      3) I believe that any taking of land and/or environmental remediation will be cost borne by the town above and beyond what we have to spend on items related to the path.
      4) Interactions with the High School Building Committee to make the proper accommodations for the path represents additional unknowns and possible delays in both the design of the path and the feasibility of the southern route. While we all hope this would be something that could be amicably worked out, it is not completely understood, and quite frankly seem to be a bit unpredictable as to whether the path will work well with the eventual High School design. Also, there are a number of bodies (High School Building Committee, School Committee, etc.) who will each essentially have veto power over our putting the path adjacent to High School grounds. This presents a risk that we should not ignore.
      5) I hope we all agree that the Brighton Street crossing must be improved – with or without the community path. The point we’re trying to make is that the experience for a user of the path will be very different if they have to cross just Brighton Street, or if they have to cross both Brighton Street and the railway – it is simply more dangerous to cross both the road and the railroad. We believe that because of this difference, these two options should have been scored differently by the feasibility study. Had these two been scored individually, we are confident that the northern route would have come up on top as the preferred route recommended by Pare.

      At the end of the day, if the southern route is feasible and does not significantly increase costs to the Town, I believe it is still more dangerous and less usable by the majority of path users. I, like most folks, think that if a compromise is needed to move the path forward, than that is what we should pursue. But I just want to raise these points so that what I passionately feel is the best route is the one that we move forward with.

  2. Environmental Engineer says

    There are no concerns with environmental contamination on the north side of the Cambridge Plating property, where the bike path will go. All of the information needed is readily available on the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection website, one needs only to read it. Contrary to article the EPA is not involved, its the MA DEP. There was at one time chromium contamination on the north side of the property, and it was remediated. Over 100 tons of soil was removed. There is limited chlorinated organic compounds in the ground by the loading dock, but the testing not only shows that contamination is not migrating, but that if it did, it would move with groundwater flow that moves southwesterly, that opposite direction of the proposed bike path. The Cambridge Plating Co. has been remediating the property and the contamination levels have been decreasing. Sampling has also indicated no contamination beneath the building. Furthermore, the town can be protected from liability from the Brownsfields Act of 2002. What the article neglects to inform is that there has been no evaluation of the contamination on the North Side of the Rail. It is MA DEP policy that land formerly used as a rail line is assume contaminated unless proven otherwise. The assessment of the North side which the town would have to pay for will cost at least $200,000. Despite what has been reported, areas sampled in the area are completely unrelated to the land between Belmont Center and Brighton Street which is fill material, used to elevate the tracks. If contamination is present, again costing at least $200,000 to find out, a cleanup would likely cost between 2 and 5 million dollars, leaning toward the higher end because of the embankments and tree roots. That’s the real liability question that needs to be answered, not the heavily sampled Cambridge Plating Property

    • Jarrod Goentzel says

      Thanks for sharing your comments. None of the information you shared was mentioned in the feasibility study and should be confirmed. During the November 2017 meeting there was discussion of testing conducted on the north side as part of the French building construction, but also was not in the study. Regardless, the south side path was used in the same way by the rail line and would be subject to the same conditions and costs; the only difference is the EPA toxic site. Further, your speculation regarding costs should not inform any decisions without study, which has not been done. We must be careful to distinguish opinion from evidence.

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