WHITMAN – The Select Board on Tuesday, Oct. 11, heard a program proposal aimed at making South Avenue a “more vibrant, welcoming location.”
That balance would be ironed out through dialog with the community, town officials and MassDOT.
Jim Fitzgerald and Benny Hung of Environmental Partners, as well as members of the DPW Commissioners, appeared before the board to provide an overview of the Connecting Communities proposal and the MassDOT Transportation Investment Program (TIP) and a potential project on South Avenue.
“What could the vision be?” Fitzgerald asked. “That depends on the town and where things balance out.” But, he stressed, the program allows communities to use existing opportunities to achieve continuous complete strees improvements while improving safety and green space making and promoting economic vitality.
Fitzgerald is the director of transportation at Environmental Partners, in Quincy.
The TIP program funds larger-scale roadway projects, which would be manages by MassDOT. The only cost incurred by a town is for project design, according to Commission Chair Kevin Cleary.
He said the commissioners could get Environmental Partners going on the MassDOT application process and the commission would keep the Select Board updates as the approval process starts.
“Over the last few years, the DPW Commissioners and Highway Superintendent Bruce Martin have been working with Environmental Partners trying to find as many open sources for roadway/sidewalk work,” Cleary said. There has been some success in obtaining a couple of Complete Streets grants.
Select Board Chair Randy LaMattina asked how much the design costs might be, which Fitzgerald put at, on average, it could be about 14 percent of the total cost, warning that the figure was a “very rough mumber.”
Interim Town Administrator Frank Lynam asked what a total cost estimate for the plan illustration Environmental Partners presented might be.
“With construction costs right now a little all over the place, it’s a tough one,” Fitzgerald said, putting it at possibly $10 million.
The first step for any community would be an online application at which time the state DOT investigates to see it a proposal passes the “smell test” for viability.
“Based on the merits of this project, we would anticipate it would,” Fitzgerald said. “It ticks off a lot of boxes – and the fact that Whitman has not requested a lot of funds in the past, also.”
He suggested the town tackle the 25 percent of it – the design phase – first, and having MassDOT involved early in the process is also important to make sure they are aligned with their expectations.
The width of South Avenue could also work in the town’s favor, as it offers room to address the design aims.
The lengthy application process means any project – encompassing an approximately one-mile stretch of South Avenue from Commercial to Plymouth streets, would take four to five years to complete.
“We took a look at the corridor and identified a series of opportunities that really lends itself nicely for something like a TIP project,” Fitzgerald said, noting that the Commuter Rail station on South Avenue is an asset to the community. “We also looked at connectivity to things like bike and pedestrian [traffic], with Colebrook Boulevard connecting northerly to Essex [Street] and Memorial Field.”
The entire South Avenue corridor, and its current width, were also examined regarding multimodal transportation and how it could be “more comfortable” for bikes and pedestrians as well as safer for motorists in key locations, according to Fitzgerald. Residential neighborhoods along the roadway and their proximity to things like the Commuter Rail station were also studied within both a seven-minute and three-minute walk to the station. Similar radii were studied around Duval Elementary School. The redevelopment or revitalization of businesses now located on South Avenue has also been done and the opportunites within complete streets.
“Studies have proven that complete streets have many benefits, including safety and promoting bike and pedestrian use, but also for the economic vitality of locations,” he said.
Traffic safety studies have also shown that the area nearest the Commuter Rail tracks have seen the highest number of crashes – and rates within the top 5 percent of all crashes statewide. The intersection of South Avenue with Franklin and Pleasant streets is ranked within the top 10 among crashes causing injury statewide.
“It’s [also] a very odd configuration,” Fitzgerald said. “Given the development in the area, the configuration of the roads have morphed over the years. Instead of one intersection, it’s really three, which can make it pretty challenging or confusing when it comes to motorists traveling through it, especially if they’re not familiar with the location.”
It also has long pedestrian crossings – ranging from 60 to 100 feet – and have ADA compliance issues. Crossings in the Raynor Avenue area also have the same problem for pedestrians with movement issues.
Work to narrow pedestrian crossings would also provide greenscapes and ease drainage in the areas.
Traffic speeds would also be addressed to establish a well-balanced design.
The TIP program of federal funds, which Whitman has not proposed in recent years, would “address a lot of the issues we’re looking at along South Avenue.
Select Board member Justin Evans noted his board had recently asked the DPW to look into a Section 40R overlay in the Commuter Rail area, asking if this project would impact that. Fitzgerald said he does not believe it would.
“But it does make it more attractive,” LaMattina said, to Fitzgerald’s agreement.
“There are so many things going for this project,” he said. “It can only be a feather in the cap to have this sort of redevelopment.”
LaMattina said he grew up in the area and was told by an older resident at the time, “Oh, you live on that side of the tracks.”
“I think any development down there would be fantastic,” he said. “It opens up the other things we’re trying to do.”