As State, MBTA Ease Community Path Obstacles, Final Decision On Route Set For Feb. 25

Photo: Jody Ray, the MBTA’s assistant general manager, pointing to the Brighton Street crossing.

In a significant concession to help push a final decision on a preferred route for the Belmont segment of a 102-mile bike trail, representatives from the MBTA and the state’s Department of Transportation said they could support a community path along either the north or south side of the commuter rail tracks from the Cambridge town line to Belmont Center.

At a standing room only Board of Selectmen’s meeting on Monday night, Jan 28, the two officials whose statements this past summer highlighting safety concerns at the commuter rail crossing on Brighton Street pushed Selectmen to revisit a north route to the consternation of Channing Road residents, noted their agencies consider the path a “high priority” and want to keep the project moving forward. 

When asked by Selectman Tom Caputo if both potential routes “were both fundable,” Jody Ray, the MBTA’s assistant general manager for Commuter Rail, said while the authority’s focus is on safety, “there’s no fatal flaw” for either a north or south path if a fix could be developed for the Brighton Street crossing.

But while the declarations would appear to allow the path to proceed along a southern route as the board decided more than a year ago, the reemergence of problems with several “pinch” points along the first several hundred feet of the southerly path could eventually keep the route on the north side. 

At meeting’s end, the Selectmen circled Monday, Feb. 25 as the date when it will declare which of the two routes – north or south – will be selected, a decision more than three decades in the making. 

At the Monday meeting, Belmont Town Administrator Patrice Garvin said Belmont would be seeking the maximum $300,000 from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s MassTrails Grants program, to be used for project development and design. Those monies will either supplement or defray the $1 million in Community Preservation Committee funds approved by Town Meeting in May. With a Feb. 1 deadline looming, the town would need to submit a plan that selected either one of the two routes. 

Ray and Michael Trepanier from the state’s Department of Transportation were asked by the board to attend the meeting to provide their view on which path option would receive a more favorable reading. 

The Board of Selectmen voted in Dec. 2017 to adopt the recommendation of PARE Consultants to build a pedestrian tunnel at Alexander Avenue and proceed along the south or High School side of the commuter rail tracks.

But that decision is now in “flux” according to Selectman Mark Paolillo, due to “serious safety concerns” the MBTA presented to the town’s attention in July that bicyclists would cut diagonally from the south side across the rail/road intersection at Brighton Street to engage the existing bike trail to Alewife Station. At the time, town and Belmont’s elected officials were told the state would be “reluctant” to fund a southern route.

In addition to the safety concerns, the MassDOT declared it would no longer require funding for the Alexander pedestrian tunnel to be linked with a south path. With the changes, town officials and elected officials determined the town should pursuit a north route, to the frustration of several Channing Road homeowners who have long complained of a lack of privacy and personal safety with a well-traveled trail.

Ray and Trepanier were asked to speak at the meeting as many residents sought a direct answer from the state and MBTA.

The DOT’s Trepanier put his cards on the table early: the state wants the Belmont section built as it will connect other sections and Belmont has committed sizable funds for design and feasibility studies to the project.

“A high priority corridor”

“The state recognizes this is the Belmont portion of the Mass Central Rail Trail, a high priority corridor for us working at the state level,” said Trepanier which will impact if the project is selected for a grant. But he said that if the MBTA’s issues with bicyclists safely cross the rail tracks at Brighton Street – cyclists would likely travel diagonally across the tracks rather than at crosswalks or sidewalks and would not encounter the safety gates when they close as a train approaches – were not resolved than possible future funding would be “negatively impact the favorability” of the project.

“Bicyclists don’t tend to make right corner turns, they’ll take the shortest distance” which is hazardous when a train is approaching, Ray said. 

Since the MBTA wanted gates to prevent residents from going into the crossing, Selectman Paolillo suggested a system in which additional gates onto the path to cutting all access to the intersection which incidentally is being discussed for an intersection in West Concord.

When asked by Selectmen Chair Adam Dash if such a design addition – which Trepanier called “a really innovated thing to do” – would change the MBTA’s concerns on the southern route, Ray said while the authority always wants a crossing away from the tracks, “we will consider it.” And Trepanier said, “the caveat would be that we’d want … to engage in national best practices on how we deal with these hazardous locations.”

But Trepanier added there needs to be some “amount of practicality and pragmatism inject here” and while the MBTA had “raised the red flag” on their safety concerns, “we recognize people can [cross at an angle] today. The path is there and we don’t want to exacerbate a safety issue because one fatality is a fatality too many.”

“There are details like this that need to be worked out in order to ensure that working with a partner that we could assuage their concerns or make the situation safer,” said Trepanier.

While the state and MBTA may have softened their objection to a southern path, it also brought to the forefront an issue of “pinch points” along the start of the route from Brighton Street towards Belmont Center. While both trails need to contend with buildings and right of ways to have the required width that will allow access for emergency vehicles, a southerly route would require the town to take a portion of two sites, the Purecoat structure and the building housing the Crate Escape, a dog daycare business, through a sale or by an eminent domain taking.

In fact, the analysis of possible routes by the Pare Corp. which conducted a near year-long feasibility study of the community path did not take into consideration the price of acquiring portions of the two businesses. Amy Archer of Pare said she would begin a new study to reevaluate how much the town will undertake in the additional costs.

And the price tag for a southern route could be significant upwards to several millions of dollars, according to resident and path supporter Paul Roberts. Resolving the pinches will be “at least as daunting” as solve the safety problems at Brighton Street. He said there is no such impediment on the north side of the tracks; the only reason the board will not declare its preference for the route has less to do with safety or cost but as a political decision to placate the Channing Road homeowners.

But defenders of the southernly laid out path challenged the price differential by proposing using town streets including Hittinger Road to avoid the buildings altogether.


Three Routes Presented As Finalists for Belmont’s Community Path

Photo: Screenshot of the presentation from Pare Corp of one of the three top-ranking routes.

And now there are three.

After more than a half a year of analysis and study, the project management team conducting a feasibility study of a community path in Belmont presented to the public three possible routes that “scored” the highest.

“It was listening to the public and performing a great amount of analysis to come up with the highest ranking routes,” said Amy Archer of Pare Corp. who presented the top three trails to about 70 residents who braved a windy, rainy Wednesday night, April 26 to attend the ninth public meeting held by the firm.

Archer said Pare will return in June to present its recommended route to the Belmont Board of Selectmen which will either accept, reject or ask for more options. If it approves the route, the path could be completed by the fall of 2021.

The feasibility study was approved by Town Meeting in May 2016 to recommend a single route that would best serve residents and function as a segment of the Mass Central Rail Trail, a proposed 104-mile rail trail from Northampton to Boston that can be used by bicyclists, walkers, runners, and nature enthusiasts.

In the previous eight meetings, the study explored the dozens of segments of a possible route, graded each using criteria based on engineering standards, cost and comments from the community on what it wanted the path to be. The firm also rejected proposed spans determined “fatally flawed” due to high cost or chronic safety issues.

The three selected routes are similar regarding length – about two miles long – and in the “score” each achieved: the best option with a score of 76 would cost $27.9 million, the second and third – both with scores of 75 – are priced at $31.8 million and $25.1 million.

Each route travels along the northern edge of the commuter rail from Belmont Center to a proposed pedestrian tunnel at Alexandra Avenue where the paths then travel along the south side of the tracks adjacent Belmont High School.

Archer said diverting the paths to the southside rather than continue on land owned by the Belmont Community Forum takes the paths away from the majority of Channing Road homeowners who have long opposed a path adjacent to their property lines. The southside also has the option of not being “squeezed” at its end at the crossing at Brighton Street at the FE French Building.

A major issue confronting the path transversing the southside of the commuter tracks is it will be in the same location as the site of a proposed renovated/new Belmont High School and encroaches on the property of Crate Escape, the dog daycare business at the corner of Brighton.

Archer said talks are ongoing concerning the high school property. Also, the portion of the Crate Escape property that would be used by the path is the loading dock, which is not essential for the business.

The three paths are quite similar traveling from Waverley to Belmont Center, staying on the north side of Pleasant Street. The primary difference is how the trail transverses the Waverley Square Center and the commuter rail station. The higher cost options rely on covering the opening over the location and building walls to support the new construction as opposed to using ramps.

The relatively good news for Belmont is that Archer anticipates that the entire project will be “fully funded” by grants from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the MBTA, in part, to the popularity of rail trail projects and that Belmont is a significant segment connecting two sections of the Mass Central Rail Trail.

Any of the paths would most likely qualify for funding if the were direct route and one supported by local officials, noted Archer.

Money could also be coming from the MBTA, according to Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee member Vincent Stanton, as the path would solve a “big problem the MBTA is facing” with making the Waverley Station handicap compliant with the installation of a ramp system that would be part of the community path.

But  the town will be required to pony up “a substantial amount”  for the initial design stage which will cost just under 10 percent of the total cost or about $2 million, funding that could be obtained through grants from the town’s Community Preservation Act account, a request for capital funds, a state legislative earmark, private funds or any combination.

If the route is accepted, it will take nearly four years from the point the design of the path begins to a grand opening, with the final two years the construction phase.

Wednesday’s Comm. Path Feasibility Meeting: $ and Rating the Routes

Photo: Community path in Somerville.

The penultimate public meeting of the Belmont Community Path feasibility study will finally focus on how much each of the possible routes running across Belmont will cost and how to find the Benjamins to pay for it.

The meeting, at 7 p.m., Wednesday, April 26, in the Chenery Middle School’s auditorium, will feature the work of Pare Corporation, the firm hired last year by the Belmont Board of Selectmen to be the study’s project manager. 

Wednesday’s gathering – dubbed “Hot Topics” by Pare – is the final public meeting before Pare presents its recommended path route to the Board of Selectmen in May. 

Wednesday’s event, the ninth feasibility study public meeting held by Pare, will focus on presenting four major components in evaluating and analyzing the routes that transverse the town from the Waltham border outside of Waverley Square to the Cambridge city line just off Brighton Street at the Fitchburg Cutoff Bikepath.

The night’s agenda includes:
        • The “Full” Matrix,
        • The study’s evaluation criteria,
        • Cost summaries for the route options, and 
        • Potential funding sources.

Pare will present what it is calling “the Full Matrix”, which is a spreadsheet in which each of the more than two dozen paths evaluated are ranked on a series of criteria, i.e. user experience, design attributes, cost, to determine the suitability of each route.

Community Path Feasibility Study Winding Down, Recommendation in April

Photo: Anne Archer of PARE Corporation leads residents in the latest round of the Community Path Feasibility Study on Wednesday, March 8.

Before approximately 50 residents in the Belmont Town Hall auditorium on Wednesday, March 8, the consultants conducting the feasibility study on a proposed multi-use community path running through Belmont said the review is “winding down” with a final recommendation from the team coming in about six weeks time.

PARE Corporation‘s Amy Archer and Kathleen Fasser, a ‎Principal at K3 Landscape Architecture,  unveiled several routes and their estimated costs associated with the third segment of the trail which runs from the commuter rail bridge in Belmont Center to Brighton Street adjacent to the Cambridge city line.

Information on the trail and costs have been placed in the Town of Belmont website. Questions and comments made up the remainder of the night. 

Archer said a final public meeting would be held in the next weeks to go over “hot topics” – issues such as privacy and public safety – which produced the most comments or raised matters in the previous three meetings.

Archer added the review team would include comments and suggestions into a recommendation report presented to the Board of Selectmen sometime in mid-to-late April, between town elections on April 4 and the first day of Town Meeting on May 1. 

“It will take about a month to incorporate what the community tells us is important to them into the final report,” she told the Belmontonian. 

Hired last year by the Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee, PARE will recommend to the town a single route that, according to the firm, will “best serve the Town’s residents AND function as a segment of the Mass Central Rail Trail.” 

The MCRT is a 104-mile former railroad line from Northampton to Boston that is being restored as a rail trail, a path to be used by bicyclists, walkers, runners, baby strollers and young cyclists with training wheels, wheel chair users, cross-country skiers, equestrians (in areas out west) and nature enthusiasts.

Town Selects Firm for Community Path Feasibility Study, Set to Sign Contract

Photo: The East Bay Bike Path from Bristol to Providence, RI, created by the PARE Corp.

The long-awaited feasibility study to recommend a preferred route for a two-and-a-quarter mile long community path running through Belmont appears well on its way to becoming a reality. PARE Corp., the firm selected by both the Board of Selectmen and an advisory group to perform the study, has met a critical contract demand.

“There are only have a few things left to work out,” said David Kale, Belmont Town Administrator at an early morning Selectmen’s meeting on Tuesday, May 31, after announcing that PARE’s bid price for the study was below the $200,000 limit placed on the job by Belmont Town Meeting last year.

Kale also announced Tuesday the town will receive $100,000 from the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation to assist in paying for the study, funds secured by Belmont State Rep. Dave Rogers. That will be added to the $100,000 in Capital Budget funds allocated by Town Meeting in June 2015 to be used by the end of fiscal year on June, 31.

When asked when a contract for the feasibility study could be signed, Kale would only say “soon.”

After obtaining six formal bids during the Request for Proposal process, PARE, with locations in Foxboro and Lincoln, RI, was the first choice of the Selectmen and the Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee, which has spent the past 18 months reviewing years of studies and analysis.

PARE was the one firm which has a background in studying and creating bike and community paths.

The feasibility study, which has a completion date of Dec. 31, 2016, will provide an overall cost for a path and a recommendation of the most efficient route from Waltham to Cambridge. The firm and town has committed to several public meetings and visits to the site during the feasibility work.