Traffic barriers on Highland Ave./ Credit: Needham Observer

With the implementation of a new design and maintenance strategy, Needham’s streets and sidewalks have been placed on the infrastructure equivalent of a long-term diet. The regimen is intended to result in a leaner and safer multimodal (pedestrians, bicycles, cars) transportation system over the next decade and beyond.

As with all diets, there will be sacrifices. Speed limits on certain roads will be reduced. Some sidewalk-lined streets will only have sidewalks on one side. And there will be aesthetic compromises because improving safety isn’t always pretty.

The strategy was laid out last month at the inaugural meeting of the Mobility Planning & Coordinating Committee. Established earlier this year by the Select Board, the seven-member group will help guide planning around street and sidewalk repair, traffic management and other mobility-related initiatives. It will work in tandem with two other town transportation boards – the Transportation Safety and Rail Trail Advisory committees.

“We’re putting in a process so we can be equitable, thoughtful and careful about how we implement changes to markings, signs and overall geometry going forward,” said Justin McCullen, chair of the committee, which has no elected officials as voting members.

In addition to the seven residents, the committee includes nonvoting participation from senior staff from the Department of Public Works (DPW) and the planning department. Together, they will coordinate maintenance of the town’s vast surface infrastructure, which includes 260 lane miles of road, 160 miles of sidewalks and 246 miles of berm grass or curbing. Committee meetings are open to the public, and ultimately any recommendations will have to go through the normal policy and budget processes.

At its initial meeting last month, the committee received an overview of the town’s historic approach from Rhain Hoyland, who has served as highway superintendent since the 1990s and plans to retire at the end of the year.

During his tenure, the town has slowly but steadily whittled away at a daunting backlog of deferred maintenance after town spending on infrastructure was cut back in the 1980s after Proposition 2 1/2 limited property tax rates.

At the beginning of Howland’s tenure, he said the “pavement condition rating” of the town’s roads received a grade of 58 on a 100 scale. “We’ve gotten it up into the 80s,” Hoyland said, the result of a long-term effort that alternated occasional full reconstruction of certain roads with more frequent applications of less intensive surface treatments.

A maintenance schedule for the town’s sidewalk system took place on a parallel track, initially focused on school walking routes before shifting focus to the rest of the town. Hoyland said the school-focused effort covered nearly one-third of the town, but some 80 miles of sidewalks remain in arrears – which Hoyland estimates to be a 30-year backlog.

“That’s over $20 million,” he said. “At our current spending rate we’d never catch up.”

This leaves the Mobility Commission facing the difficult option of likely reducing the town’s sidewalk mileage, especially in neighborhoods with low traffic volumes and low average vehicle speeds. Some streets that have sidewalks on both sides may see one side eliminated when those roads are scheduled for maintenance.

Carys Lustig, the DPW commissioner and a nonvoting member of the mobility group, said “the town has a ‘no new sidewalk’ policy, with only a few exceptions for equity and emergencies.”

She said the plan will require the town to develop a better network of crosswalks to make up for the loss of sidewalk.

Hitting the roads

When it comes to the town’s public ways, the DPW has a goal of completing 17 miles of upgrades each year. Some are complete reconstructions but most are surface treatments. Hoyland said the full reconstructions generally cost 10 times more than surface treatments.

Lustig said the town gets its best bang for the buck by emphasizing treatments that, if chosen judiciously, can extend the life of a road for more than 10 years.

“It’s art and it’s science,” said Shane Mark, the DPW’s assistant director. “The science is evaluating our roads, getting the road surface rating – also called a ‘pavement condition index.’ But degradation happens on the roadway due to many factors.”

Lustig said the DPW tries to max out on the benefits a project can provide beyond more robust pavement — such as safety and traffic flow improvements. “You really only get one good opportunity to manage a project. And oftentimes that’s when you’re doing maintenance,” she said.

McCullen says the committee will work closely with the DPW to see that its goals are realized during those projects.

He says those goals will likely include more standardization of signs and markings around town; progress in addressing the sidewalk inventory and sidewalk maintenance program; the implementation of safety zones; and comprehensive speed management plans.

The work will be influenced by the town’s 2018 decision to participate in the state’s Complete Streets program, which makes Needham eligible for funding on projects that meet the Complete Streets goals of “safe and accessible options for all travel modes – walking, biking, transit and vehicles – for people of all ages and abilities.” For transit experts, that’s a healthy, balanced diet.

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