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ARLINGTON

Arlington offers rebuttal to critics of Mass. Ave. plan

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / October 31, 2010

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Arlington officials are reaching out to local merchants after more than 80 businesses signed a letter opposing the inclusion of bicycle lanes in a multimillion-dollar overhaul proposed for a busy stretch of Massachusetts Avenue.

The letter, circulated by the East Arlington Concerned Citizens Committee and sent to the town’s Planning and Community Development Department on Oct. 8, called the redesign a “bad plan for East Arlington’’ and urged the town not to reduce the number of motor vehicle lanes along the 1-mile stretch of road.

Stephen Hall, owner of Hair Systems Salon in East Arlington and one of the letter’s signers, said traffic already backs up along Massachusetts Avenue, and the proposed realignment would make the problem worse.

“To take a whole auto lane away doesn’t make sense,’’ said Hall, who signed the letter in opposition to the plan. “I just think it’s crazy.’’

The town was preparing to resubmit its Massachusetts Avenue redesign plans to the state Department of Transportation this week in hopes of receiving funding for the $5.5 million project, said Arlington’s planning director, Carol Kowalski. In addition to addressing traffic concerns on the town’s central thoroughfare, the redesign aims to improve pedestrian safety and business vitality.

Kowalski said that several business owners who signed the opposition letter had not even seen the redesign, and the town was sending a written response to each of the merchants.

“I’m not convinced that the businesses were given the chance to see the actual plan,’’ Kowalski said.

Maria Romano, a member of the East Arlington Concerned Citizens Committee, said every business was informed about the town’s plan, and the owners were instructed to read the letter before signing it.

“We’re not lying to people, we’re not trying to scare people and we’re not pressuring people’’ to sign the letter, Romano said.

Hall, who has owned his business at Lake Street and Massachusetts Avenue for 20 years, said he knew what was in the letter and what the town is planning to do.

“We’ve seen the plan,’’ he said. “We know what it’s all about.’’

Frank Tuminelli, a co-owner of Superior Tire & Brake Inc. at 36 Massachusetts Ave., said he signed the letter without knowing “exactly’’ what it said, and he hasn’t studied the town’s plans. But Tuminelli said he is not in favor of reducing the traffic lanes in an area where there already is bumper-to-bumper traffic each morning.

“Anything that reduces the traffic down to one lane down here is not going to help,’’ he said.

The town wants to reduce the number of westbound travel lanes from two to one along most of Massachusetts Avenue’s 1-mile stretch between Alewife Brook Parkway and Pond Lane, with left-turn lanes provided at some intersections.

On the eastbound side, heading toward Cambridge, there would be one travel lane from Pond Lane to the area around Marion Road, where a second lane would be open until Alewife Brook Parkway.

Each side of the road would include a 5-foot-wide bicycle lane.

Eric Berger, a member of the East Arlington Concerned Citizens Committee who has been a leader in the campaign against the project, said the redesign could put bicyclists at risk of hitting or being struck by the opening doors of cars parallel parked along Massachusetts Avenue beside the bike lanes.

“It’s a tragedy in waiting,’’ said Berger, who added that bicyclists already have a safe travel route nearby, along the Minuteman Bikeway recreational path.

But Phil Goff, cochairman of the East Arlington Livable Streets organization, which supports the inclusion of bike lanes, said the redesign includes parking spaces that are wider than many spots alongside bicycle lanes in Boston and Cambridge. He said the dedicated lanes are much safer for cyclists than riding in the same lane as automobiles.

“We believe that the bike lane design is really the best design it could possibly be,’’ Goff said.

The letter signed by the East Arlington businesses asked the town to keep a total of four travel lanes, to be shared by motor vehicles and bicycles, and do away with the proposed bicycle lanes.

But Luisa Paiewonsky, the highway administrator for the state Transportation Department and an Arlington resident, said her agency believes it’s safer to have dedicated bicycle lanes. The stretch of Massachusetts Avenue being redesigned is 66 feet across at its narrowest point, she said, and can accommodate vehicle traffic, bicycle lanes, and parking spaces.

State transportation officials would listen to a proposal to leave out the bicycle lanes, but the town would have to prove why the lanes couldn’t fit on the roadway, Paiewonsky said.

“It would be a hard case to make why you couldn’t include bike lanes there,’’ she said.

In her written response to the businesses opposing the redesign, Kowalski said their group’s letter is mistaken in its assertion that the plan’s curb extensions, also known as “bump outs,’’ would reduce the number of parking spaces along the street.

The curb extensions, which are designed to improve pedestrian safety, would not eliminate any legal parking spaces, she said.

But Berger said the business owners signed the letter because they believe they are going to lose customers if the redesign is approved.

“If this was as good for the business community’’ as town officials maintain, he said, “why would they be signing this?’’

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com.

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