A Poll: How Technology Could Help Town Government Serve Us Better

Hey Blogging Belmont readers and ‘Happy Monday’! I’m writing you in my capacity as the Chairman of Belmont’s IT Advisory Committee and asking you a big favor: five minutes of your time to take this important survey, which assesses how  Belmont residents are engaging with the work of both elected and appointed committees in our town government.

Some background: it is the job of ITAC to provide strategic planning and advising functions to the Town’s departments and committees. As such, we are exploring ways in which Belmont town committees and the great work they do can be made more accessible to you, as residents. Before we can make recommendations about that, however, we need to understand how most Belmontonians interact with Town Government – how you learn about goings on in Town, whether you attend local government meetings (and how often), how you consume the output of Town committees (if at all).

We’re also interested in learning about how you consume information, attend meetings, etc. in your personal and work life and whether you might welcome or be comfortable with new avenues by which Belmont committees can interact with residents.

Please take five minutes (and it won’t take more than that) to fill out this survey. Your responses will go into our report to the Board of Selectmen, School Committee and Library Board of Trustees.

Again: you can use this link to take the survey.

Yours,

Paul

Northern Disclosure: How the Community Path Meeting Went Down

OK – a lot of you who didn’t make it to the Board of Selectmen’s meeting on Monday – or who did make it but had to leave early (I’m looking at you, Claus!) – have asked me to provide a run down of what happened. That’s what I’ll do in this blog post, with the proviso that its not too late to express your desires and preferences regarding the Bike Path to both the Selectmen and Town Planner, as well as the members of the Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee (CPIAC). Once again, just send an email to our Selectmen (selectmen@belmont-ma.gov) and copy the members of the Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee (CPIAC) at path@bloggingbelmont.com. Also, copy Town Planner Jeffrey Wheeler (jwheeler@belmont-ma.gov) on your message.

As for the substance of the meeting on Monday:

Lots of interest

First, there was huge turnout, prompting the BOS to hold their meeting in the Town Hall auditorium. True, Community Path wasn’t the only issue on the agenda, but given the exodus after we finished discussing it, I’m guessing 1/2 to 2/3rds of attendees were there to talk about the Path. Both path supporters and opponents were there in good numbers, but I’d say the supporters solidly outnumbered opponents. So if you read about the meeting here and turned out Monday: thank you!!

Northern Disclosure

Setting the tone of the conversation – before the conversation of the Path even started-  there was the letter from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (Mass DOT), which I’ve attached here.

MassDOT letter to Belmont re: Community Path

Nov. 16 MassDOT letter to Town Manager Patrice Garvin

The letter was signed by John Ray, the Assistant GM at MassDOT’s Commuter Rail and Ferry Operations, and addressed to Town Manager Patrice Garvin the MBTA and MassDOT’s support for the Community Path including the railway underpass at Alexander Road. But it also reiterates concerns about the proposed route of the Belmont Community Path. The second paragraph is the one to note:

“The MBTA has previously voiced dire concerns with the idea of a bike path changing sides of the rail line at Brighton Street. The addition of (the) underpass makes the logical and very safe connection between the bike path and the high school/sports fields. If the community path never comes to fruition, the underpass remains an important safety feature that provides great convenience to school children and the entire neighborhood by safely connecting homes with destinations.”

I took the liberty of bolding the sections that should absolutely freak you out.

Basically what Mr. Ray is saying is that the MBTA does not approve of an at-grade crossing but does really like the idea of an underpass connecting the Winn Brook neighborhood to the High School campus.

If need be, the MBTA is ready to go ahead with one but not the other. For all those (including CPIAC member Mike Cicalese who has argued that Belmont has the State over a barrel with its desire to build this 2 mile segment of the Massachusetts Central Rail Trail), the MassDOT letter should be a wake up call: MassDOT is ready to send Belmont packing on the Path if the town insists on an unsafe route when an alternative, safer route (the North side of the Fitchburg line tracks) stands at the ready. We’ve been warned. And with the State and Federal Govt. expected to pick up 90% of the cost of this project, that’s a loud warning.

Mass DOT Letter Page 2

A graphic showing the proposed north-south switch at Brighton Street in Belmont, which the MBTA calls unsafe. Image courtesy of the MBTA.

Seen the World from Both Sides…Again

The Selectmen first expressed their desire to hear from all sides on this, and to counter the whisper narrative that the BOS was acting imperially again, as it did with the Town Green a couple years back. Having spearheaded opposition to the Town Green, I concur with the BOS that the two situations are nothing alike.

BOS invited CPIAC Chair Russ Leino up to discuss that Committee’s vote in October, which split 3-2 in favor of sticking with the recommended route on the south side of the tracks and pushing back on the MBTA and MassDOT. Russ talked about the discussion leading up to that vote. The word “contentious” was used a lot.

Long and short: a slim majority of CPIAC members felt like the south side of the tracks was so advantageous to the town as to override the safety concerns of the MBTA.

Southern Discomfort

Why is one side of the tracks so superior to an equally viable side of the tracks just 15 feet to the north? It depends on who you ask. CPIAC member Brian Burke took the first shot at explaining why. His story was a long and colorful sales pitch and was presented with a lot of hand waving. He spoke of as yet undeclared, unplanned and unfunded improvements in Cambridge to support residential developments off of Concord Ave and in the Fresh Pond area. Tapping into this development would be like discovering gold deposits under Belmont High: a huge boon to the Town that we couldn’t afford to walk away from.

There are a bunch of problems with this narrative.

  • First: none of the developments and improvements Burke is speaking of are even on the drawing board in Cambridge, let alone funded by that City and ready to go.
  • Second, Burke envisions a bike path continuing along the south side of the Fitchburg line in Cambridge, once you cross over Brighton Street. That, even though a bike path already runs along the North side of that same stretch of track, from the Belmont Cambridge line to Alewife Station and the Minuteman Trail. (CPIAC member Heather Ivestor tried to suggest that Alewife wasn’t the “be all and end all” destination for the Path, which almost had me doing a spit-take with my Cafe Mocha.)
  • Third: all this land is in Cambridge, not Belmont. That kind of ties Belmont’s hands, even if we really wanted the south side trail to happen, which its not clear we do.

Plenty of path supporters got up to speak and make the same arguments we’ve heard for going on 10 years now: the need for safe passage for bikers and pedestrians through Belmont, the environmental benefits of taking cars off the road, the economic benefit to Belmont to connect our business centers to growing residential developments on Cambridge Park Drive and in Fresh Pond.

In the end, the BOS suggested they would take the comments under advisement and also follow up with MassDOT and the MBTA to allow them to clarify their (op)position to the proposed South Side route. But reading between the lines of the MassDOT’s last letter to the town, it seems increasingly likely that the choice for the Community Path will be a “North side or bust” decision. As Selectmen Dash suggested: like it or not, Belmont could soon have to decide between a path on the North side of the tracks and no track at all.

Here’s hoping the Selectmen make the right decision, should that come to pass.

You to the Rescue: Critical Selectmen’s Meeting Monday to support Belmont Community Path

I know Blogging Belmont readers have heard a lot from me about “critical meetings” to show support for the long-planned Belmont Community Path by now. And there’s probably a bit of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” thing going on. But this time I’m serious: the Community Path faces a critical vote Monday evening by the Board of Selectmen and there’s at least a passing chance that staunch and sustained opposition to a common sense route along the Commuter Rail tracks by abutters on Channing Road will force a decision that could doom the construction of the path.

So – once again – Community Path supporters need to turn out in force to the Selectmen’s Hearing Room at Belmont Town Hall on Monday. The draft agenda for the meeting shows the Community Path discussion starting at 7:40 PM, but you want to arrive before then (say 7:15 or 7:20) just to be sure!

If you can’t make it but want to voice your support for a safe route along the north side of the tracks, just send an email to our Selectmen (selectmen@belmont-ma.gov) and copy the members of the Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee (CPIAC) at path@bloggingbelmont.com. Also, copy Town Planner Jeffrey Wheeler (jwheeler@belmont-ma.gov) on your message. Thanks!!

The back story

If you’re thinking “wait, I thought all this Community Path stuff was settled,” I don’t blame you. From the 50,000 foot view: the Town has been moving steadily toward the realization of an off-road walking and biking path through Belmont alongside the existing Fitchburg rail line. The engineering firm, PARE, completed its feasibility study for a path one year ago. That 58 page report (PDF here)  laid out and ranked a number of path options, consisting of various segments, from Brighton Ave – the eastern end of the proposed path – through to the western terminus at the Waltham border at Beaver Brook Reservation. It then recommended a route as the most desirable.

Fitchburg Cutoff Path

Fitchburg Cutoff Path (Photo by Paul Roberts)

As I noted when I wrote back on October 5: that’s where the trouble started. PARE was mindful of the desire for a pedestrian underpass between the Winn Brook neighborhood and the High School, and responsive staunch opposition of a small number of Channing Road residents whose property would abut a path that ran along the north side of the Fitchburg line. Their recommended route included a complicated North-South-North switchback from Brighton Street, across the tracks to the south (Belmont High) side of the rail line and then back to the north side through the underpass on Alexander Avenue.

Funding on the line

What’s happened since is that the MBTA and the Massachusetts Dept. of Transportation (DOT) have signaled their willingness to invest in the Belmont Community Path. State and federal money could eventually pay up to 90% of the cost of construction – a huge gift to the town. And, last week, Town Meeting voted unanimously to allocate $400,000 for the design of the underpass (Community Path Phase 1a), moving that forward. The state has indicated it is willing to pay for construction of that tunnel as part of the overall project, regardless of whether the path runs through the tunnel. That takes a big reason for the south side route off the table.

But the MBTA has also highlighted some things they want changed in the design. At the top of the list: the at-grade track crossing at Brighton, which they see as unneeded and dangerous. As Sen. Brownsberger has indicated, the MBTA and Mass DOT would like the town to address that in their design for Phase 1B, which covers the path from Brighton Street to Belmont Center. Regardless of whether you agree with the MBTA’s thinking, Sen. Brownsberger has made it clear that ignoring this simple request may well jeopardize state funding for construction of the path. 

This seems like a no-brainer. But as I indicated last month, Belmont’s own CPIAC is sharply divided on the north-south issue. Following a contentious meeting on Oct. 5, a majority of members  of that committee (3-2) voted to recommend not updating the top proposed alignment for phase 1B from the south to the north side. That Committee’s chairman, Russ Leino, has indicated that he very strongly disagrees with the committee’s vote, but will need to present that recommendation to the BOS on Monday, along with the other members of CPIAC.

Fitchburg Cutoff Path

Photo of the Fitchburg Cutoff – let’s extend this to Belmont Center!

That puts the issue of the north vs. south side alignment in the hands of the Board of Selectmen. If they vote to listen to the request from the MBTA, they will need to vote contrary to the recommendation of their own advisory committee. They will also incur the wrath of abutters. If they vote with CPIAC, they will be turning a deaf ear to the wishes of the MBTA and DOT – the projects two main funders- and Belmont’s representatives on Beacon Hill, who have counseled the town to work with the state’s request to guarantee priority funding. 

You to the rescue

That’s where you come in. You’ll make the Selectmen’s “tough vote” a lot easier by showing up to their hearing room Monday evening and voicing strong support for a compromise with the MBTA that will send the path along the North side of the tracks. With that vote, Belmont can almost guarantee priority funding to cover the vast majority of Phase 1a and 1b of the Community Path and give Belmont residents a fresh new off-road pedestrian path from Belmont Center all the way to Alewife and The Minuteman trail.

Let’s make this happen, Belmont!  I’ll see you Monday evening!