I’m one of your at-large city councilors. To help me do my job better, I will be sending out occasional emails about issues facing the city. I’m hoping these emails will inform you and that you will help me get a fuller picture.
In this post, I cover three things:
On Wednesday, January 3, the Public Facilities Committee heard about the Department of Public Works’ plans to repair Newton’s roads. While I’m not a member of this committee, the chair, Councilor Deb Crossley, invited all councilors to attend.
DPW Commissioner Jim McGonagle explained that one reason—besides underfunding—that so many of Newton’s roads are currently in rough shape is that the City used to do a full “mill & pave” every 12-15 years (or longer), instead of lower-cost maintenance that prolongs pavement life.
Road maintenance ranges from “crack sealing” (those squiggly lines of asphalt that fill in the small holes before they become big holes), through to reclamation. The former is relatively inexpensive and quick, the latter is almost the most expensive road repair we do. (Tops for expense is concrete panel overlay—which is what much of Watertown St, some of Centre St, and upper Lowell Ave need—at $4million/mile.)*
DPW decides on which roads to fix based on several factors:
DPW Commissioner McGonagle provided this chart -->
I’m not going to replicate Jake’s good work, but I generally support saving money and preserving our public assets. Based on this metric, it often makes more sense to prioritize a “fair” street rather than one in worse repair.
*For those of you who use Lowell Ave, the northern section was scheduled for resurfacing this summer.
Summer work 2018
For 2018, DPW has a short list of streets it is working on—and will also continue 2017 work, like Beacon from Walnut to Centre, which was not completed before the snow. This list only includes major work—not maintenance work (cape sealing and less expensive).
Here's what struck me:
I live on Chestnut St, one of the city’s few north-south routes. My street is 24 feet wide in most places—which is just big enough for two 10-foot lanes and two shoulders for snow, drainage, etc. Whatever else you may say about Chestnut, it goes places and a lot of people use it.
So, as I was reviewing the above chart, what struck me was how wide some of the streets in the “reclaim” chart are—these are roads in such bad shape that they will need the most expensive repairs. But none of these roads has the kind of usage that my street does. They are residential, and serve a few dozen homes at most. They SHOULD be quiet and safe. Some are dead ends.
Research on street design has shown that drivers don’t feel comfortable speeding on curvy, narrow roads lined with trees or other vertical objects (buildings, poles). Years of engineering wide, straight, highway-like streets with few roadside obstacles has proven the concept—people drive faster on wider, straighter roads. And faster is deadlier. So if you want side streets to be quiet, you make them curvilinear and NARROW.
Many of the streets to be reconstructed are WIDER than 24’. And, as the top chart shows, these newly-reconstructed roads will last us about 15 years with good maintenance. The more pavement we have, the higher our repaving and maintenance costs—even with the Commissioner's wise maintenance plans.
I’m not arguing that these streets shouldn’t be nice and smooth. But our city faces serious fiscal challenges, which Mayor Fuller outlined during the campaign this year. So we need to think carefully about our priorities—new school buildings or new fire stations? Maintain parks or pay police officers?
Newton also will soon have to remove pollution from the water that drains to the lake and river. This is done most cheaply by letting water soak into the ground rather than treating it after it runs off pavement or buildings. In fact, in Franklin, MA, DPW Commissioner Brutus Cantoreggi is currently removing sidewalk and pavement on every cul-de-sac he can to meet a court order to keep pollution from entering the Charles River via runoff.
So, my question is: does it make sense for Newton taxpayers to reconstruct ALL of these side streets at widths greater than 24 feet? In some cases, the width may be needed for parking—but most of the homes on South Newton streets, built after 1945, have ample off-street parking. Kids who want to bike or roller-skate will need a smooth surface, but if the street is wide, doing so is less safe, since wider streets encourage speeding. Do we need pedestrian access on these roads? A quick look at Google Street View shows Cynthia Road (30’, South Newton), for instance, has sidewalks on both sides.
Reconstruction, as I heard the Commissioner explain it, involves re-setting curb. Would it be more financially and environmentally sustainable to narrow the paved part of the road, widening the strip of land between sidewalk and street? Would the trees planted there be able to grow larger, given more root room? Would there be more room for snow storage?
What do you think?