Opponents to Arlington’s plan to reduce the number of travel lanes on Massachusetts Avenue made a boisterous showing Tuesday night at a state hearing on the project.
Well over 400 people crowded into the Town Hall auditorium for a chance to voice their opinions on the project, including scores of opponents who held up paper "stop" signs to ask state Department of Transportation officials to halt the project.
The lively crowd frequently erupted into applause when someone spoke in opposition to the proposed project, only to be gaveled into silence by Selectmen Chairwoman Clarissa Rowe, who struggled to keep a long line of speakers moving.
When project designers began discussing a portion of sidewalk along the avenue that would be widened to 20 feet, the crowd began booing loudly.
“There are too many people here tonight for this,” Rowe said, trying to quiet the crowd.
“That’s why we’re here,” one woman shouted from the crowd.
But a large portion of the crowd also voiced support for the plan at the hearing, which state transportation officials held to gather comments on the state-funded $5.8 million project. The design for the project is expected to be completed this fall.
The town has already proposed reducing 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.
The town’s proposal would also create bike lanes, which would be five-feet wide on each side of the avenue.
Opponents argue that removing the traffic lanes to install bicycle lanes will increase traffic on what is already a congested road.
Eric Berger, an Arlington resident who has spearheaded much of the opposition against the project, said the bike lanes would only be used by a few advanced cyclists, and the town’s plan is “the epitome of a government taken over by the special interests of the few.”
“All of Arlington is going to suffer,” Berger said.
To keep traffic moving, project designers said pedestrian signals will be upgraded and the sequencing of traffic signals along the one-mile stretch of Massachusetts Avenue will be improved.
“The existing traffic signals are not acting very efficiently today,” said Richard Azzalina, the vice president of transportation for the town-hired engineering firm Fay, Spofford & Thorndike.
The proposed design will also widen sidewalks and make them accessible to the disabled. Bus stops will be improved, and the number of legal parking spots will be increased in the business district.
Richard Fraiman, the owner of the Capitol Theatre at 204 Massachusetts Ave., said that while there is no perfect plan, he is looking forward to the town’s proposal being completed.
“We see the amenities of this plan as a tremendous plus,” Fraiman said.
Magdalena Hoersch, who lives on Brattle Street in Arlington, spoke in favor of the plan in part because she said riding a bicycle with her daughter on Massachusetts Avenue now is “too dangerous.”
Hoersch also urged the crowd at the hearing to “think a little bigger” by considering the effect of cars on climate change and the need to switch to alternative forms of transportation.
“We really need to change the way we live,” Hoersch said.
But the strong contingent of opponents to the plan asked the state to reconsider the current plan.
“Arlington has spoken; keep Massachusetts Avenue four lanes,” said Joe Connors, a member of the East Arlington Concerned Citizens Committee. “The residents ask Mass. D.O.T. to listen.”
Kimberley Sloan, the project manager for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the state will continue accepting written comment on the project for 10 business days after Tuesday’s public hearing.
Comments can be submitted to: Thomas F. Broderick, P.E., Acting Chief Engineer, MassDOT, 10 Park Plaza, Boston, MA 02116, ATTN: Project Management Section, Project File No. 604687.