Summer roadwork in Needham/ Credit: Needham Observer

An enhanced Department of Public Works staff and infusions of funds from multiple sources have set Needham up for a much busier than usual construction season this year — which helps explain the high volume of close encounters with detour signs many of us have been having.

Given the especially mild winter, crews were able to start work in early spring on a volume of infrastructure improvement projects that DPW Director Carys Lustig said may be unprecedented in terms of dollar value.

“Overall in this plan you’ll see about $20 million worth of projects that we’ll be doing throughout the summer,” she said, walking the Select Board through the plans at its most recent meeting.

“I don’t think that’s ever been heard of in the town, but I do think we’ll be able to complete that volume of work.”

In addition to town funds, the projects are supported by federal and state monies and funds from Eversource, which negotiated a payment to the town in return for being granted certain allowances to work on gas main repairs it is mandated to complete.

With fewer vacancies than it had at this time last year, the DPW can dedicate more of its own staff to augment construction work done mostly by contractors.

Much of the total dollar value of work is related to the town’s water and sewer infrastructure, including a sewer interceptor line that conveys nearly one-third of the town’s wastewater from numerous surrounding sewer lines. While that work may not be as public-facing, more conspicuous projects have been underway for several weeks along Webster Street near Needham High School and along nearly the entire length of Dedham Avenue.

“It’s been hard not to notice that Webster Street has been dug up for the last two years by Eversource as they do a main project,” Lustig told the Select Board. “As part of that project they transitioned funds over to the town.”

That funding, said Lustig, “gives us the opportunity to do some surface treatments and some traffic calming work that I think has been looked for, particularly on Webster Street.”

“The thought process 20 years ago was ‘the wider the lanes, the safer people are.’ That turns out not to be the case,” Lustig said in an interview with the Observer. 

“There are going to be speed tables so you’ll have a raised crosswalk that will be in closer proximity to the school to try to create that additional traffic-calming area right in front of the school,” she said. The work will add accessible ramps, which do not exist along the vast majority of Webster Street, and an upgrade to ADA-compliant sidewalks.

Dedham Ave. sidewalk and roadwork/ Credit: Needham Observer

A new look for Dedham Avenue

Many of the same traffic-calming principles are being applied to extensive work along Dedham Avenue. As a numbered state highway, the road was previously on the state Department of Transportation’s project list. When a nearby Eversource project proved logistically problematic, it was postponed.

“Instead of having (Mass. DOT) complete the work, we’re actually having them grant us the funds to do the work,” said Lustig. This will allow the town to do it on its own timeline.

“The advantage is most of the projects that they do are on roads that don’t have things like catch basin structures or crosswalks or ramps or granite curbing. So we agreed with Mass. DOT that we were better prepared to manage that type of project.”

The town’s version of the roadway improvement project contains features the state would not have provided, such as wheelchair-access ramps, sidewalks with granite curbing from Webster Street to Lincoln Street, traffic-detection upgrades at the Webster Street intersection and a Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacon (RRFB) system for a new crosswalk at George Aggott Road.

The speed limit will be reduced to 30 mph, and other elements are intended to enhance safety for pedestrians and cyclists. An expanded sidewalk under the MBTA bridge is expected to double as a traffic-calming improvement by creating a “choke point” to slow traffic.

Dedham Avenue also was part of a wider guardrail replacement program throughout town. “We had very picturesque picket fence guardrails that were lovely to look at,” said Lustig. “But it did not provide any protection for drivers if they were to hit it.” 

The Dedham Avenue work will be completed with a “mill and pave” of the street with new pavement markings, including new or upgraded crosswalks and shared and dedicated bike lanes.

More neighborhood participation

Changes are planned for the intersection of Brewster Drive and Alden Road/ Credit: Needham Observer

Recently, DPW began holding informal neighborhood meetings for residents who live near planned projects to discuss the work with DPW officials, other town staff and Select Board members. “It’s definitely a new thing,” said Lustig. “Our goal is not necessarily to design by committee, but to get feedback from those who are abutting the property — particularly if we’re changing some of the physical layouts — to see if there’s any tweaks we can make.”

At last week’s Select Board meeting, it became clear that an issue raised at a neighborhood meeting for the Webster Street work, which concerns the merits of adding a crosswalk at Brookline Street to augment the two existing crosswalks near Holland and Lindbergh streets, would involve more than a tweak to accommodate. 

“I do think it’s kind of a missed opportunity not to have a crosswalk at Brookline across Webster,” said Josh Levy, whose fellow Select Board members did not share his view. “I remember when we had the neighborhood meeting, many people were crossing at that location. I think it’s just a natural place to cross.”

DPW officials noted the Needham Police opposed the added crosswalk, preferring to channel pedestrians to the two existing crosswalks that are more convenient to the high school entrances. Select Board Co-Chair Heidi Frail also feared a third crosswalk might do more harm than good.

“Before school and after school it’s a zoo,” she said of Webster Street. “It’s a game of Frogger already. Adding another crosswalk just feels really nerve-wracking. It feels overstimulating for a driver just to get through there.”

Likewise, residents of Brewster Drive and Alden Road are raising concerns over a project in their neighborhood planned for later this summer on the other side of town. The DPW hopes to take advantage of a scheduled repaving project to address traffic safety concerns raised by what DPW considers an overly wide intersection. 

“We don’t always do a neighborhood meeting, although I think we’re trying to do them more frequently before we start construction so we get feedback with the intention of improving our original design, not necessarily changing it,” said Lustig, who said meetings with Brewster/Alden residents have been beneficial.

“In that particular case, we’re actually moving two driveways out of the intersection, so talking to those homeowners has been helpful as well.”

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