By Dakota Antelman, Managing Editor
MARLBOROUGH – The City Council’s Urban Affairs Subcommittee recommended a rejection of plans to build a 140-unit multifamily development along Route 20 on June 29 after the state said “no” to a request to install a traffic light outside of the development.
On July 15, days before the first full City Council meeting after that subcommittee vote, state legislators offered their perspective.
“Even though the private developer is willing to pay 100 cents on the dollar for the light, they’re saying, ‘No, it doesn’t satisfy any of our requirements so, it would be an impediment to traffic to put it in,’” Rep. Carmine Gentile (D-Sudbury) told the Community Advocate. “What can you do?”
The Walcott development has been in the works for over a year as developers have sought approval to build on the old McGee farm property in town.
Members of the public, as well as some elected officials, however, have raised questions, some of which focus on traffic safety issues along that portion of Route 20.
Hearing those concerns, developers agreed to pay the full cost of a traffic light to mitigate potentially dangerous incidents in the area. When the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) joined the conversation, though, its representatives said the intersection in question met none of its criteria for a light.
As such, it wouldn’t allow one to be installed.
Gentile’s district includes the site of the proposed Walcott development. He noted that the desire for a traffic light isn’t only coming from the City Council and its conversations with developers.
“We have hundreds of elderly seniors across the street, and they desperately would like to have a light so that they can safely go in and out,” he said, referencing the Villages at Marlborough East 55+ housing complex which branches off Route 20.
With a traffic light out of the picture, the Urban Affairs Committee voted by a 3-1-1 margin in favor of a motion to reject the Walcott special permit application.
“They’re on the ground, they’re listening to the constituents, so I support their decision,” Gentile said of Marlborough’s City Councilors.
He added, “The reality is we need more housing. We need more housing in eastern Massachusetts. We need more housing everywhere. That would have supplied a lot more housing.”
Rep. Danielle Gregoire’s (D-Marlborough) district does not include the McGee farm property. As she represents a large portion of Marlborough, though, she was also involved in recent discussions.
“The traffic light issue, it’s been proven to have no merit by MassDOT,” she said. “We set up the meeting. That’s what we were asked to do, so that’s what we did, and it was made clear to us by MassDOT that basically under no circumstances was a light ever going to be warranted at that intersection.”
“I appreciate that the counselors feel that it’s necessary, but the numbers just aren’t there to support their argument,” she added.
These conversations took place July 14 as Gregoire, Gentile and City Councilor At Large Samantha Perlman joined U.S. Representative Lori Trahan (MA-03) for a visit to the Marlborough Community Cupboard.
Perlman is not a voting member of the Urban Affairs Committee. However, she criticized MassDOT’s traffic light decision at the committee’s June 29 meeting and later reflected on the decision her colleagues made.
“The light was such an important, pivotal thing,” she said. “The residents have really spoken up about the traffic and I think the public safety is a huge concern especially with all of the accidents that have been happening all over Route 20. That, to me, was a big part of why I think the decision went the way it did.”
“I totally respect that,” she said of the DOT’s criteria. “But we need to make a decision based off the information that we have.”
“We obviously can’t change what has already happened at the state level, but we need to make decisions based off the safety and wellbeing of the people in our community,” she added.
The Community Advocate reached out to MassDOT, whose Communication Director, Kristen Pennucci, said that traffic signals on Route 20 have to conform with requirements in the Federal Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices and its Massachusetts Amendments.
The Manual specifies nine warrants that are evaluated when determining whether to install a traffic signal. They are eight-hour vehicular volume, four-hour vehicular volume, peak hour traffic, pedestrian volume, presence of a school crossing, whether there is a coordinated signal system, crash experience, roadway network and if there is an intersection near a grade crossing.
“There are many factors that impact the effectiveness of a signal, and all should be evaluated before a decision to install a signal is made,” Pennucci said. “However, failure to meet the warranting criteria indicates that a traffic signal could be detrimental to the safe operation of the roadway and should not be installed.”
The City Council holds its next meeting on July 19. While the Urban Affairs Subcommittee has weighed in, a full Council vote will make the final decision on this project.
Additional reporting by Stuart Foster