On Sunday, August 24, Natick residents Dick and Jill Miller and I had a look at the Route 9 project, which extends either side of the Oak Street intersection.
We drove the length of the project in both directions, and I shot video of it.
We parked just west of Oak Street. I walked west along the median all the way past the eastbound-to-westbound U turn which is east of Hunnewell Town Forest and west of Oak Street, to check on what the configuration will be once the project is completed, shooting video from time to time.
Good news, more or less: Contrary to some first impressions posted on an e-mail list by a commuting cyclist, once the Jersey barriers have been removed, the curbs will be in the same places where they were before construction, so the roadway widths will be no better and no worse. Over much of the length of this segment, however, widening the roadway could provide a rideable shoulder or bike lane where there is currently none. This could have improved bicycling conditions, but would have required expensively moving out the curbs. During construction, shared-lane markings in the right-hand lane might alleviate the anti-bicycle design where only two traffic lanes and no breakdown lane exist.
A base layer of bituminous (asphalt-based) concrete already has been laid over most of the length of the median. There was a median barrier railing before, as shown in Google Street Views. A plan drawing shows that the barrier is to be replaced, see http://www.natickma.gov/sites/natickma/files/file/file/oak-9_west.pdf .
Dick reports that a local family whose son had died when crossing Route 9 on foot pursued the construction of the inappropriate U-turn lane and traffic signal west of Oak Street — which predate the current project — despite its being possible to make a U-turn at Oak Street. Dick thinks that the U turn is in a wrong location for a pedestrian crossing – even if it offered one. It does not. A pedestrian overpass at the west end of the Town Forest would far better serve the local neighborhoods, but MassDOT had ignored that request. Wethersfield Road and the Mathworks driveway opposite it also suggest themselves as a location for a signalized intersection or pedestrian overpass.
Pedestrian crossings in general are too few. There is no pedestrian crossing between Route 27 and Oak Street, nearly 1 1/2 miles, though there are residential neighborhoods, retail businesses and major employers on both sides of Route 9. We saw pedestrians cross, even during our brief visit.
It occurs to us that the U-turn is superfluous, that providing a pedestrian crossing was a better use of funding at the time of its construction. Dick and Jill heard, earlier in the process, that the rotary at Oak Street is to be replaced with left-turn lanes – subject to the Final Plan. The present work on the median appears largely cosmetic. It is being reconstructed just as it was before. Providing a pedestrian crossing between Route 27 and Oak Street would have been a far higher priority, in our opinion.
Throughout the length of the reconstruction of the median, the sidewalk has been repaved except around most utility poles, which will be removed and replaced with others outboard of the sidewalk. There is new paving around a few poles which are near one side of the sidewalk, and don’t obstruct it significantly. There is, however, a serious issue with construction staging. The sidewalk has been torn up around the utility poles for at least 11 months, see Google Street view from September, 2013: http://tinyurl.com/koqxcg8 . Dick reports that this is an issue with NSTAR coordinating – spectacularly poorly.
If the old poles had been removed before the sidewalk got repaved, then it could all have been repaved at once instead of leaving sections around the old poles unpaved so the poles could be pulled out, and having to come back again to pave those sections of sidewalk. The sidewalk would have been available as a bicycle detour during construction, and wheelchair access could have been provided nearly a year earlier.
Dick, Jill and I also drove west of the project and noticed some sections of sidewalk which are overgrown and barely usable or unusable, including sections leading to/from the new bridge across Lake Cochituate. Much of the vegetation overhanging these sections of sidewalk is poison ivy. There is no sidewalk under the Cochituate Rail Trail bridge (though a path might go up to the trail once it is built). The roadway has sections with shoulders and sections without, as well as on-and on-ramps and off-ramps and driveways. There are “wait here” markers and signs for bicycle traffic signal actuation at intersections, appropriately placed, though this segment of Route 9 certainly can’t be called “bicycle friendly”.
We didn’t check whether the actuators work (which would have been difficult because there was motor traffic to trigger the signals).
In summary, we believe:
1. This is not a good example of a bicycle-friendly or pedestrian-friendly highway reconstruction project, and particularly not during construction.
2. The project has severe impediments to safe bicycle movement during construction and, following construction, only leaves them as they were.
3. It is worth revisiting what can be done to alleviate the worst problems, both interim and final.
4. It is worth revisiting how and why poor design features, spending priorities, construction staging problems and maintenance lapses were allowed.