By Greg Reibman
The biggest construction project to touch Newton in a generation is set to break ground later this year.
No, I’m not talking about the Northland project, whose fate will be decided by voters on Super Tuesday. I’m talking about the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s redesign of the Needham Street/Highland Avenue corridor.
The state is spending close to $30 million to address the most glaring challenges along this two-mile stretch; starting at the junction of Winchester Street and Route 9 in Newton and extending down Needham Street, across the Charles River onto Highland Avenue in Needham.
The project aims to improve walkability for pedestrians and reduce conflict points for cars and improve biking safety. The historic bridge over the Charles River will have two lanes heading into Newton and one lane into Needham. Cantilevered sidewalks will make the bridge safer for cyclists and pedestrians. The redesigned street will have two driving lanes, a central lane for left turns, sidewalks for pedestrians, raised bike lanes for cyclists and clear places where buses can stop. The number of curb cuts that currently contribute to slow traffic and challenges for pedestrians and cyclists will be reduced.
My favorite addition will be the new smart traffic lights that can give priority to MBTA buses – as well as Northland’s proposed free electric shuttles – making bus ridership more attractive.
It’s important to note that the state will not be making Needham Street wider. Studies show that adding lanes doesn’t actually improve traffic flow; it attracts more cars. Instead, this is about making Needham Street safer for residents, shoppers and workers, no matter which mode of transportation we choose.
This won’t “fix” traffic either. To do that we need to find more ways to get more people out of single occupancy vehicles; something we also need to do to curb global warming. But experts agree: This redesign will make Needham Street a friendlier place to walk, bike and shop. Officials in both Newton and Needham have signed off too. This is a long overdue improvement.
And while this state-financed project is totally separate from Northland’s privately-funded project, Mass DOT thoroughly vetted Northland’s plans to make sure it was compatible. (Northland also contributed land at the corner of Charlemont Street, next to the new Marshalls, that should make crossing there safer). Thanks to some tough negotiations between the developer and Newton City Council, Northland also agreed to give Newton $5 million for traffic mitigation and studies that the city wanted but the state didn’t fund, such as connecting the Greenway to the Green Line or converting the old MBTA rail bridge into a bike path to Needham.Northland is also building a multi-modal mobility hub on Needham Street, with a welcome lounge; information for pedestrian, bike, bus and ride-sharing customers; plus free electric shuttles leaving every ten minutes that everyone can use.Our Councilors were actually pretty tough on Northland, requiring them to reduce residential parking spaces and provide free and discounted MBTA passes for residents and office and retail employees worth $1.5 million annually.
And there’s more good news from the state too.The MBTA just announced plans to spend more than $1 billion to double the Green Line capacity, in part by buying a new fleet of as many as 200-plus, longer, trolleys. That’s over and beyond the project happening now to rebuild the Riverside Line T tracks which will also speed up trolly times.
As great as all this sounds -- and it is certainly good news -- we still have years of work ahead to improve traffic locally and regionally. That’s why the chamber recently joined business organizations statewide in calling for more state transportation funding.We’re also going to need more companies to follow Northland’s lead, underwriting shuttles, subsidizing T passes and flexible work schedules.
And I won’t sugarcoat this either: There will be mind-numbing delays and disruptions to businesses while all this work is being done.
Still, while most days it feels like no one is working to address traffic and transportation, it’s worth noting that there are actually improvements in the works.
Greg Reibman is president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber and a Newton Highlands resident.