When he stepped to the microphone before a crowd of more than 300 people in Arlington’s Town Hall last week, Eric Berger told state officials that he had a five-minute speech explaining his opposition to plans to reconfigure Massachusetts Avenue.
But halfway through his presentation, a red light came on, signaling that Berger’s three minutes of allotted time were up, and a burst of applause came from the crowd.
When Berger tried to continue, the applause strengthened and drowned out his voice until finally officials from the state Department of Transportation told him he needed to take his seat.
“I’m sorry, we have to let everybody have the same amount of time,” said Marie Rose, a project manager for the state agency’s Highway Division.
Two years after opponents to Arlington’s plans to reduce the vehicle lanes and add bicycle access along Massachusetts Avenue made a boisterous showing at a hearing before state officials, the large crowd at Town Hall on Tuesday night was noticeably more subdued, and a strong majority of speakers voiced support for the project.
“Will everybody be satisfied? No,” said the Board of Selectmen’s chairman, Kevin Greeley. “But this is a good solution.”
The project, with an estimated cost of $6.8 million, would reconfigure Massachusetts Avenue along a mile-long stretch in East Arlington. The busy thoroughfare now has two travel lanes for cars and trucks in each direction.
Arlington officials have proposed reducing the number of vehicle lanes, mostly on the westbound side of the avenue, in order to install bicycle lanes on each side of the roadway. The project will also include sidewalk and pedestrian-crossing improvements.
After years of often heated debate about the project, state Senator Ken Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat, said, federal funding is drying up, and it is time for the town to move ahead with the project before it loses its share of state and federal grants to help pay for it.
Federal dollars will pay 80 percent of the Massachusetts Avenue project, with the state picking up the remaining amount.
“Most likely, we will never see this kind of commitment again, and it will be our town coffers that fix this road,” Donnelly said during the hearing.
The Federal Highway Administration asked the state to hold the public hearing on the Massachusetts Avenue project to discuss changes in the proposal since the rowdy hearing two years ago.
Among the changes was the town’s announcement last March that officials had decided not to reduce the number of vehicle lanes on the eastbound side of the avenue between Pond Lane and Linwood Street.
On Tuesday, scores of Arlington residents spoke at the hearing, and several cited the restoration of the vehicle lane on the eastbound side of the avenue as a good compromise.
Arlington resident Alan Jones said he was disappointed that the vehicle lane is being put back on the eastbound side, but he’s happy with the outcome of what has been a 15-year effort to address safety problems along the roadway, illustrated by the deaths of two pedestrians hit while crossing the street.
However, opponents to the project are still making their voices heard.
The East Arlington Concerned Citizens Committee collected more than 3,000 signatures in a successful effort to get a nonbinding question on town’s annual election ballot next month. The measure asks residents whether they think Massachusetts Avenue should have four lanes as it does now.
Berger, who has been one of the leaders of the grass-roots group, said reducing the number of lanes for cars and trucks will cause gridlock along the commuter artery. He also said the town’s plans to reduce the number of vehicle lanes were developed in secrecy years before the plan was ever revealed to the public.
Maria Romano, who helped lead the charge for the nonbinding ballot question, told state officials Tuesday that the project could have moved forward years ago if town officials had only listened to input from neighbors at the start of the design process.
“Fix Mass. Ave., don’t ruin it,” Romano said. “Keep four lanes and let bikes share the road.”
Rose said the design for the Massachusetts Avenue project is expected to be completed this summer, with construction expected to take two years.
Written comments about the project can be submitted to the state within 10 business days of Tuesday’s hearing.
Statements should be submitted by March 12 to Thomas F. Broderick, P.E., Chief Engineer, MassDOT, 10 Park Plaza, Boston, MA 02116, and marked for attention of the Project Management Section, Project File No. 604687.