Is Northampton a vassal of MassDOT?

On April 24, 2019, a phalanx of highway engineers from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and Parsons Engineering traveled to...

On April 24, 2019, a phalanx of highway engineers from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and Parsons Engineering traveled to Northampton from Boston to hold a “public hearing” on a four-year, $ 57 million state project. aimed at rebuilding parts of Interstate-91 and adjacent streets in Northampton.

Their audience at the poorly publicized audience numbered four: three farmers (two from Hatfield) and a “local citizen,” according to the entry sheet. No one represented the city or the downtown business community. Plans for the project were only released half an hour before the hearing and were subsequently withdrawn from public access.

This was the only public information event organized by the MassDOT to discuss its ongoing megaproject to replace the I-91 bridges on Route 5 near Atwood Drive and on Hockanum Road. The first Gazette article on the project (“Work begins on I-91 bridge”, July 26, 2021) caught my attention.

Why do I care? Part of it is my ingrained skepticism about big-budget, top-down engineering projects that date back to the start of my career dueling with administration Richard J. Daley on road and city renewal projects in Chicago. (I helped block Daley’s “Crosstown Expressway” which would have wiped out some of the blue collar and minority neighborhoods.)

More immediately, I sensed that MassDOT was not up front with the local community about the potential impacts on Northampton town center, and the town had not raised any of these concerns. After failing to access the plans locally or online, I appealed to State Representative Lindsay Sabadosa to intercede with MassDOT. Incredibly, she had to submit a Freedom of Information Act request (for a state project in her own district!), Which ultimately unraveled the plans, along with a transcript of the hearing. April 2019. These public documents are now literally at your fingertips thanks to our hard-working State Representative.

We can certainly all observe that the columns supporting the Highway 5 viaduct are in need of serious repair or replacement, like those on many other aging highways. But this project is not limited to the reconstruction of the Route 5 interchange. It will extend along a mile of I-91 to include the viaduct over Hockanum Road, a small street in town and a dirt road leading to Meadows.

By combining the replacements of Route 5 and the Hockanum Viaduct into one massive project, MassDOT intends to build a one-mile-long temporary road in the middle strip of I-91 to divert northbound traffic. and later southbound while replacing the regular lanes in each direction. The project also includes bike paths and sidewalks along a stretch of Route 5 and loosely described work on Hockanum Road.

The plans do not mention traffic diversions to Highway 5 due to lane closures, accidents or driver impatience. Apparently, it is assumed that the temporary pavement will prevent this. But how will the temporary pavement itself be built and then removed without significant impact on traffic?

Pleasant Street – the segment of Route 5 through Northampton city center – has evolved in recent years into a dense mixed-use urban area. Major public and private investments in the corridor include two new mixed-income apartment buildings, Amtrak station, health and social service agencies, cannabis dispensaries, traffic roundabout, railway crossing and COVID-era restaurant expansions on the street.

With 10 crosswalks between the roundabout and Main Street, Pleasant Street is now more accessible on foot than by car – a success of the downtown redevelopment. But unpredictable increases in I-91 traffic, including countless diesel-spewing trucks, will cause traffic jams, degrade air quality, block access to local businesses, and infuriate everyone.

Although plans for the project ignore the potential for diversions of I-91 traffic through downtown, Richard Masse of MassDOT said during the April 2019 hearing: “There will be a pre-construction conference with all city ​​services guests. And once it’s under construction… we’ll work with our contractor when we know some of those timelines specifically to let it be known when those impacts, including detours, will occur.

No such conference has actually taken place. At the very least, MassDOT owes Northampton well-publicized public information and a question-and-answer opportunity. Ideally, this should happen early enough to adjust the project design and schedule to mitigate avoidable impacts. As Masse has promised, the city should expect to be notified when traffic diversions are foreseeable. And if and when serious traffic jams occur, the state should compensate the excessive costs to the city and its downtown businesses.

The bottom line is that local governments cannot act like the vassals of a feudal lord in the face of massive federal / state spending on public works. The state needs to hear from cities and towns as equal partners in the design of the project, not as passive observers. They are literally where the rubber meets the road.

Rutherford Platt lives in Florence.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Is Northampton a vassal of MassDOT?
Is Northampton a vassal of MassDOT?
Newsrust - US Top News
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