City pushes for $17m road project
Overhaul sought for Needham Street
A long-awaited overhaul of Needham Street, a crucial but traffic-clogged commercial corridor, may finally be poised to move ahead as Newton officials prepare to huddle with state highway planners.
Newton has scheduled a meeting with the state Department of Transportation to hear a series of options for revamping the roadway from its starting point in Newton Highlands into Needham, where it becomes Highland Avenue, to Webster Street.
The congested 1.6-mile commercial strip is home to millions of square feet of offices, shops, and restaurants, and is a major source of tax revenue for both communities.
But mounting traffic on the now-antiquated roadway has become both a safety hazard for pedestrians and a deterrent to potential customers of its businesses, officials say.
Now, after more than a decade of debate, municipal officials in Newton and Needham have teamed up to help push the $17 million project through the state transportation bureaucracy and into construction, according to Robert Rooney, Newton’s chief operating officer.
“This is a good time for the project to gain traction and get it built,’’ Rooney said. “It could be a transformation of that corridor. I am hopeful Newton would see dust flying in 2013.’’
State transportation officials could not be reached for comment Friday. Needham officials were also unavailable.
The process of hammering out final plans for the long-awaited overhaul are slated to begin in earnest on Aug. 17, when state highway engineers and Newton officials meet, Rooney said.
While the final details are still unclear, he said, the general outline is in place. The project will entail a complete reconstruction of the roadway that would help get traffic moving more quickly while also making the corridor safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Along with digging up and rebuilding the roadway, Rooney said, plans call for a modest widening of 2 to 3 feet, a reduction in the number of curb cuts, more crosswalks and sidewalks, and coordination of the string of traffic lights along the road.
There is also the possibility of burying the corridor’s old-fashioned power lines in underground conduits as well, though the city would have to take the lead on that, Rooney said.
Built for 20,000 cars a day, the corridor is now jammed with upwards of 27,000, he said.
The mounting traffic is exacerbated by the corridor’s more evident flaws, from intersections that don’t line up to curb cuts that allow cars to dart in and off the road from all directions.
The roadway’s rising traffic woes have a twofold effect, by hurting the shops, stores and restaurants along the corridor while stifling its future development potential.
While thousands of people work along the corridor, walking out of the office to lunch at a nearby restaurant can be a hazardous experience. It is difficult cross the street, since the frustrating traffic conditions can spur motorists into driving as fast as they can.
The traffic problems are holding back new development as well, according to Rooney. As much as 40 percent of Newton’s future commercial growth is likely to happen along the Needham Street corridor, yet at least one major developer is waiting to see what happens with the roadway revamp before starting work, he said.
But while growth is a goal, the city does not want to transform Needham Street into a copy of Route 9, either, Rooney said.
“We looked at Route 9 and we saw that is not what we wanted,’’ Rooney said. “We wanted something where people can pull over and not feel it is a dangerous situation. We want more of a mixed used area.’’
Still, even as plans move forward, the source of the money to make them happen remains unclear.
While federal transportation dollars are unlikely, Newton officials said, they have discussed tapping into state funds controlled by the Department of Transportation, as well as other money that might be available through the state Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, which is interested in the corridor’s growth potential, Rooney said.
The design of the project is now at the 25 percent mark, typically a threshold in the state highway bureaucracy after which projects start to gain momentum, he said.
Bob Halpin, president of the Newton Needham Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses also want to make sure customers will still be able to frequent their establishments while the road is being rebuilt.
The revamp will also have to juggle a number of issues, including how to make the roadway more pedestrian friendly while keeping traffic moving, and how to consolidate curb cuts while preserving access to local businesses.
But the overhaul is long overdue, Halpin said. “We are at the point where things could and should move forward.’’
Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at email@example.com.