Reader Paula Donahoe of Melrose wrote earlier this winter to ask about gridlock afflicting Medford’s Wellington Circle, along her morning commute to Cambridge. It seems that poorly timed lights south of the circle, near Somerville’s Assembly Square mall, have caused traffic to back up along the Fellsway (Route 28) into Wellington, tying up the intersection where Routes 28 and 16 meet.
Wellington, for the uninitiated, is less a traffic circle than an oval interlaced with a cat’s cradle of one-way turning lanes and through streets, flanked by shopping plazas, a State Police barracks, and the Mystic River Reservation.
I hadn’t had a chance to look into it before I heard from Donahoe again, eight weeks later. “I am not sure if my e-mail prompted you to contact whoever controls the traffic lights or if it was a coincidence, but if you did take action in January, it worked,’’ she wrote. “. . . until yesterday. Now, they are back to the old cycle, and Wellington Circle is a mess again and gridlocked.’’
That got my attention. I contacted the Department of Conservation and Recreation - which oversees the parkways - and the Department of Transportation, which is handling $15 million in federal stimulus-supported road work to improve access to windswept Assembly Square, where a $1.5 billion redevelopment is planned. (That project will also include a new Orange Line stop, wedged between Wellington and Sullivan Square on the existing transit map.)
The nearby road work appears to be the culprit. A state traffic engineer examined the problem last week and determined that wiring had been severed in the underground system that detects when cars are waiting on the Fellsway and intersecting streets, said Michael Verseckes, a MassDOT spokesman. Add in a related pedestrian-signal issue, and drivers could face a red light for as long as 41 seconds on the Fellsway, even if no cars or pedestrians were waiting on side streets, Verseckes said.
As a temporary fix until the end of the Assembly road work, the lights were switched to run on an automated cycle based on traffic calculations. The underground detection system will be restored when the Assembly road work is finished, said Verseckes, thanking Donahoe for her question.
“This is an ongoing job, but certainly we want to be responsive to drivers, who are our customers, too,’’ he said.
In need of transportation fix? WalkBoston holding its annual celebration, featuring the US surgeon general
Last week I wrote about “Boston Under: After Hours,’’ the new documentary about the MBTA that the state is screening this Thursday at AMC Loews Boston Common 19. If you missed out on the limited tickets, you can see it the following Thursday at 6 p.m. in Cambridge’s Central Square Theater ($6), hosted by the advocacy groups LivableStreets Alliance and On the Move, or track it down on YouTube.
Meanwhile, if you’ve been shut out of this Thursday’s event but are pining for a transportation fix that afternoon, WalkBoston is holding its annual celebration on the Cambridge side of the river, with US Surgeon General Regina Benjamin as special guest.
WalkBoston, municipal name aside, is a statewide organization that promotes walking as transportation as well as recreation. It advocates for pedestrian-minded policies and infrastructure improvements, such as the more inviting sidewalks that are part of the upcoming reconstruction of the Longfellow Bridge.
Benjamin, who founded a rural health clinic in Alabama and won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant’’ before becoming the nation’s top health official, will join WalkBoston at 4 p.m. outside the Kendall T stop for a neighborhood tour that will “demonstrate ways in which walking is being reintegrated into the urban environment.’’
In other words, WalkBoston executive director Wendy Landman explained, they will be checking out improvements that make walking and exercising in the city easier and more fun, like the boardwalk and kayak launch at Kendall’s Broad Canal.
Benjamin will also keynote WalkBoston’s Golden Shoe awards ceremony and party at 5:30 p.m. in the Microsoft NERD Center. Award winners include Vicki Danberg, the Newton alderwoman who prevailed against considerable opposition last year in securing passage of a bill requiring all Newton residents, not just business owners, to shovel sidewalks within 30 hours of a snowstorm. Party attendees are asked to RSVP at walkboston.org.
Speaking of the T movie, “Boston Under’’ got me wondering about the last time the MBTA was featured on the large or small screen, aside from roll-on roles in Boston-based fare like “St. Elsewhere’’ and “Good Will Hunting.’’
The answer? Never, according to Bradley H. Clarke, the transit historian who makes an appearance in “Boston Under’’ and who serves as president of the Boston Street Railway Association, which preserves and promotes regional transit history.
Clarke, who reminded me that the Red Line turns 100 this week, could not recall any film ever produced primarily about (or even produced by) the T since the 1964 formation of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
In the old days, the private Boston Elevated Railway Co. and its first public successor, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, were good for at least a short film of their own every few years, half a dozen of which have survived.
The best of the bunch, in Clarke’s estimation, is “All in a Day,’’ a zippy 1920s silent picture promoting the El and showing maintenance crews hard at work, passengers happily gliding to their destination on street cars, and even a trolley full of children with disabilities riding mass transit under the watchful eye of a nun and heading off to a maypole dance.
Vying for best period piece, the MTA produced a scare-tactic film in the 1950s to educate the public on safety around buses, including footage of automobiles colliding with buses, Clarke said.
Others that survived the dustbin and exist in scattered local archives include black-and-white reels that document construction of today’s Blue Line through East Boston and a vivid Technicolor film from 1938 that recorded in deeply saturated hues the arrival of Boston’s very first PCC trolley car - the nationally standardized, curvilinear design that can still be found on today’s Mattapan High-Speed Line cars, preserved from the 1940s.
Finally, MBTA has a deal to lease a piece of sidewalk
For the nation’s most indebted transit agency, no deal is too small when it provides an opportunity to raise money outside of fares - especially with a fare increase and service cuts looming.
To that end, the T recently inked a $1,000-a-month agreement to lease a concrete slab that sits on a wide section of Newbury Street sidewalk, about 250 feet east of Massachusetts Avenue. (It’s next door to the J.P. Licks locale that closed last weekend after 20 years because of a new landlord’s prerogative.)
The slab sits in front of a colorful mural that conceals the entrance to an unmarked MBTA power substation. The T had tried unsuccessfully to lease it in the past, spokesman Joe Pesaturo said, leaving the empty slab to serve as the occasional unauthorized perch for impromptu buskers and velvet-Elvis portrait salesmen.
No more. The spot this spring will become the latest outpost of Clover Food Lab, the purveyor of fast vegetarian-friendly and organic-minded fare that began as a test venture in Kendall Square in late 2008 and has grown to include eight outposts, with a mix of food trucks and brick-and-mortar establishments. An artist’s rendering suggests this one will be an open-air kiosk, a breezier food truck without wheels, with a table and small waiting area out front.
Perusing listings for other spaces the T is trying to sell or lease, I couldn’t help but notice that ads for small retail slots at Ashmont and Beachmont stations carry six prohibitions. No vending machines, no ATMs, no alcohol, no tobacco, no check-cashing services, no popcorn.
Wait, no popcorn? That humble snack enjoyed by moviegoers for generations, and mythically - if not factually - handed down from the Native Americans to the Pilgrims to tide them over until the first Thanksgiving?
Correct, Pesaturo said. The T has banned it at stations because it attracts pigeons and proves especially stubborn for the cleaning crews to sweep up. But no need to panic, popcorn lovers; existing vendors who peddle popcorn in the MBTA system have been grandfathered in.