State transportation officials are pledging that a long-sought roadway project seen as a key part of economic development in both Needham and Newton will finally move ahead next year.
The $22 million project will reconstruct stretches of the Highland Avenue/Needham Street corridor over about two miles from Webster Street in Needham to Route 9 in Newton.
The plan calls for wider sidewalks, new bike lanes, upgraded intersections, and other improvements that will help the flow of traffic and make the area safer for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, said Thomas Currier, a supervising project manager at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
“I firmly believe people are going to love it when it’s done,” Currier said. “We’re optimizing what’s there now. We’re making everything safer for everyone.”
The project is also a top priority of the N2 Innovation District, a partnership of officials in Newton and Needham, local businesses, and the Newton Needham Regional Chamber to boost economic growth along Route 128.
The roughly 500-acre district encompasses the Highland Avenue/Needham Street corridor, along with nearby Needham Crossing and Wells Avenue office parks.
Newton’s mayor, Ruthanne Fuller, said the road project is essential to the commercial corridor. Several developments along Needham Street have been completed in the past few years or are under construction, and Northland Investment Corp. has unveiled conceptual plans to rebuild a cluster of properties, including Marshalls plaza, as apartments and retail and restaurant space.
“I am looking forward to working with the state to getting the spade in the ground,” Fuller said of the road project. “To make it work for our residents, our businesses — as well as those who are in cars, who are biking, and are walking — is a very high priority.”
Marianne B. Cooley, chairwoman of the Needham Board of Selectmen, said she, too, is eager to see the road project completed and serving the area. About 400 units of housing are planned for Needham Crossing, along with a regional headquarters for NBCUniversal.
“The number of additional people and vehicles in that area will be significant,” Cooley said. “It’s important that the corridor development be completed so that area doesn’t become a traffic nightmare.”
A previous version of the plan pegged the project’s cost at $15.5 million, with work beginning in fiscal 2018.
The cost and scope grew as designers worked to add more safety and accessibility improvements, as well as address operational deficiencies along the roadway, said Patrick Marvin, a MassDOT spokesman.
The project is now scheduled to go out to bid for construction in the spring of 2019; after a winning bidder has been identified, the project will need to be approved by the MassDOT Board of Directors, he said.
The project would be funded through the 2019 Transportation Improvement Program developed by the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization, and construction would begin in fall 2019, he said. The project is expected to be completed in 2022.
Transportation officials are still working to win over some residents in both communities who have questions about the project, and they held three public meetings this month.
At a meeting Jan. 11 in Newton, Currier and other officials took questions from a crowd of nearly 100 residents who pressed for details on safety issues, design, and construction.
“We struck a balance we think people will like when it’s done,” Currier said.
Some residents said they fear the area’s traffic woes will only grow as development continues, despite the road project.
Milissa Laurence of Newton said she is concerned that whatever improvements the project makes will be negated once all the larger developments, such as Northland’s, are built.
“It’s going to compound everything,” she said. “In terms of the amount of traffic, we’re going to be right back to where we were.”
Lucille Keril, a Newton Highlands resident, hopes the MassDOT project will improve Needham Street, where heavy traffic encourages many drivers to detour onto side streets. She’s concerned that as more developments are completed, traffic will worsen.
“We all avoid the street; we all take the little roads through here and there to avoid it,” she said. “It’s an awful street. Something has to be better than this.”
Myra Hugg, a Newton Highlands resident who has been involved in roadway issues for several years, tempers her expectations about the project. She said it won’t put utilities underground, which would improve the area, and street work won’t ease traffic.
“It’s going to be better, but it isn’t going to be what it should be,” she said. “There’s only so much the Department of Transportation can do, and I accept that.”
Joseph McCabe, a Needham resident who bicycles through Newton much of the year on his way to work, said the project’s bicycle lane upgrades won’t be enough to get him to bike along the corridor. Traffic problems will remain, said McCabe, who is concerned about sharing the road with vehicles in the area.
“Needham Street is going to remain impassable for much of the middle of the day, and during both rush hours,” he said.
The project will require about 130 right-of-way cases to be resolved before work begins. Some will be temporary construction easements, while others will include permanent land acquisitions, plus easements for utilities and drainage.
Utilities will not be moved underground, according to MassDOT.
The project will include improvements for the Charles River bridge, and the roadway will be expanded in places to make room for exclusive turn lanes to help ease traffic congestion and for raised bicycle lanes.
Officials in both Needham and Newton said the project is critical to the area’s future.
For decades, both Newton and Needham have worked to develop the stretch of roadway near Route 128. While Needham has successfully rezoned its share of the area for growth, Newton officials acknowledge more work needs to be done to encourage more growth on their side.
Last year, a Newton Community Engagement Group made up of residents, business people, and city officials began working to develop a plan for the area.
Needham Street, Route 9, and Washington Street are the city’s commercial corridors, and are incredibly important for their economic development potential, said Deborah Crossley, a Ward 5 councilor at large who is a member of the group.
“Washington Street and Needham Street are prime for redevelopment at this point . . . how we do that is critical,” she said.
David Kalis, a Ward 8 councilor at large and the City Council vice president, is also part of the engagement group. He said improving the infrastructure, plus bringing commercial and residential uses close together, would benefit the community.
“This corridor has a lot of potential for commercial development and a great opportunity for additional revenue for the city of Newton,” he said.
Greg Reibman, president of the Newton Needham Regional Chamber, said in a prepared statement that the project will bring much-needed improvements for drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
“Residents and businesses have been literally waiting decades for a solution to the congestion along this corridor,” Reibman said.John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.