Northborough considers bicycle, pedestrian accessibility improvements

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A car drives down South Street in Northborough. The town is talking about improvements to its sidewalks. (Photo/Dakota Antelman)

NORTHBOROUGH – A new policy adopted by the Board of Selectmen may prompt improvements geared at making Northborough a more bicycle and pedestrian-friendly community. 

The move is in line with a goal identified in the town’s master plan. But it has also prompted discussion about how to fund projects that could lead to increased costs under the town’s roadway management plan. 

“This process is to make sure that we’re looking at this holistically as a community and not just one particular neighborhood or one particular project or issue,” said Town Administrator John Coderre during a Board of Selectmen meeting earlier this month. 

MassDOT oversees Complete Streets Funding Program

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) oversees what is known as the Complete Streets Funding Program. One of the first steps in this program involves adopting a Complete Streets policy. 

Under the policy, the town will approach every transportation project and program as a chance to improve roadways, sidewalks and other corridors for all users.  

“Based on what I’m seeing and what [Director of Public Works Scott Charpentier] and John are saying, it sounds, certainly, like something we should adopt,” Selectman Leslie Rutan said in that meeting, which took place on Jan. 10. 

Northborough’s interest in this program links back to the town’s 2020 master plan, where Complete Streets funding is specifically included in a list of transportation recommendations. 

According to a memo from Charpentier, the goal of the program is to “support safe and accessible options for all modes of travel.” 

Projects funded under the program could include everything from widening sidewalks to building accessible ramps and implementing bike lanes.

Town developing prioritization plan

The policy has now been adopted and submitted to MassDOT. It is a living document that can be revisited, Charpentier said.

The next step is to develop and adopt a prioritization plan, which will identify needs, gaps, possible funding sources and plans for implementation of improvements for sidewalks, bicycles and accessibility measures, according to Charpentier’s memo. 

“The prioritization plan is really where the meat and potatoes come forward,” Charpentier said.

According to Charpentier’s memo to the selectmen, MassDOT has a grant of up to $38,000 to assist in developing the prioritization plan.

Once that plan is complete, Northborough will be eligible for a construction grant worth up to $400,000 to aid them in implementing their goals. But Coderre said the work won’t end after receiving those grant funds. 

“This is a multimillion dollar initiative that will be over years and years and years moving forward,” Coderre said.

Town Administrator notes cost concerns

Charpentier said the prioritization plan would be completed within the next several months. 

He estimated that the costs will be incurred as the Complete Streets program becomes part of the town’s roadway management plan moving forward. He projected that these changes could add 20% on top of costs associated with that roadway management plan. 

“It’s costly, but it’s a cost that I think is warranted because the community has identified it as a need,” Charpentier said.

Coderre said the town will need to identify funding to implement the prioritization plan. 

“The grant funds are not going to be the answer,” he said. “They’re a piece of it that will be helpful, and it’s great that we can participate in the program.” 

He said that, within the town’s six-year capital improvement plan, there will need to be a recurring appropriation, such as from the tax base or free cash or grant funds.

However, Coderre also noted the federal infrastructure bill, which passed last year. He said he hopes those funds will apply to programs like Complete Streets.

Rutan asked if there were any limitations to the program. 

“The biggest issue is going to be cost,” Coderre said. 

“It’s a good thing, but it costs more money,” he continued. “That is the number one drawback. That’s why the state has the grant program to incentivize you to do that because they want to see this type of sidewalk and multi-modal options for us.

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