Bicycles, Complete Streets and Rail Trails on the Agenda for Town Meeting Nov. 13

The Needham Special Town Meeting has been moved to November 13th, due to Hurricane Sandy. On the warrant for the town meeting are three articles that relate in some fashion to bicycling in Needham.

Though Needham Bikes does not have a formal position on the first two, all bicyclists certainly have a vested interest in the outcomes.This post goes through the three articles, and the potential impact on bicycling interests in town. The articles include two citizen petitions, each requesting town-sponsored committees.

Article 8 , looking for a rail trail committee, is summarized as follows:

The selectmen shall appoint a rail trail committee to study both sections and recommend a proposal for conversion of the unused rail sections into a linear park greenway. The committee shall conduct an inclusive public process of engagement with stakeholders, in particular the individuals, businesses and institutions in the neighborhoods near the rail lines to ensure the proposed project has community input and support. The committee shall recommend a rail trail conversion plan to the selectmen for their adoption, with town meeting approval.

Article 9 , is the most pertinent to bicycling interests in town, request that Selectmen form a town-sponsored bike/pedestrian advisory committee, summarized this way:

The selectmen shall appoint a bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee to prepare and recommend a comprehensive Bicycle and Pedestrian plan for the town, to include improvements to streets, sidewalks, street crossings and the proposed rail trails. The committee may consult with and make recommendations to individuals, departments, agencies and committees. The committee shall recommend a proposed Needham Bicycle and Pedestrian plan to the selectmen for their adoption.

Article 11 is offered by the Community Preservation Committee, in response to a request by the Bay Colony Rail Trail Association for $36,000 in CPC funds to enable a Feasibility study on the two mile section between Needham Junction and the Dover Line at the Charles River.

Starting with Article 9 , which is closest to our bicycling interests: Needham Bikes clearly supports efforts to encourage cycling, and the development of safer accommodations in the town for all modes of transportation alternatives, such as those for bikes and pedestrians. As such, Needham Bikes supports efforts by the town, and DPW in particular, to promote the principles of Complete Streets in developing transportation accommodations.

As seen in our success over the past few years, bicycle advocacy, planning and implementation is already well represented through the efforts of Needham Bikes, working with town officials and the Traffic Management Advisory Committee (TMAC).

Needham Bikes does not, however, address the broader issues associated with Complete Streets and as such the spirit of Article 9 is a step in the right direction to broaden the purview of multi-modal transportation in Needham.

The Board of Selectmen have voted to recommend that Town Meeting refer Article 9 to their office for further consideration. There seems to be two critical points behind this recommendation:

  1. Town officials are increasingly receptive to the principles of Complete Streets, cycling and rail trails. The issue will not go away, especially if resident advocates and town officials continue to support it.
  2. The form in which Complete Streets should be incorporated within current town departments and committees is unclear, and would be best left to town officials. For example, an expansion of the TMAC mission could be a more expedient approach.

As advocates, it's right for organizations like Needham Bikes to research alternatives, mobilize interest and propose constructive and realistic solutions for the town. It's also appropriate to retain a positive and encouraging relationship with the town to drive forward Complete Streets principles. This advocacy can be done through whatever town body or committee is created.

Many of us support the Selectmen's recommendation of referral, since we think it will enable the most effective approach to effectively embracing Complete Streets in Needham, but effectively positioned within the complex dynamics and competing priorities of a local government.

Regarding Article 8 , again the spirit of the article is in line with the interests of all bicyclists in Needham, which is to enable safe and shared use recreational paths wherever possible in the town.

However, the purpose of the proposed rail trail committee is already being served, and served very effectively, in the relationship between the non-profit group Bay Colony Rail Trail Association (BCRTA) and its active group of Needham volunteers, working effectively and constructively town officials. The proposed committee would therefore be duplicative and add a layer of complexity and potential confusion in coordinating various groups' efforts.

Again, the Board of Selectmen has unanimously voted to recommend Town Meeting refer this article back to the Board, where the ideas behind Article 8 can be effectively considered within the context of existing town processes.

From our beginning, Needham Bikes has actively supported and worked closely with the non-profit BCRTA, whose mission is to convert - where, when and how possible - abandoned rail corridors in Medfield, Dover, Needham and Newton to recreational paths. BCRTA has a very effective working relationship with the town, and together they are moving the project forward faster than most other towns in the area.

Because of the effectiveness of the curent working dynamic between BCRTA and the town, we see a separate committee as extraneous and unnecessary.

Finally, Article 11 . In the summer of 2012, BCRTA went in from of the Community Preservation Committee to request funding for a high-level engineering study of the 2-mile stretch between Needham Heights and Dover, The requested amount was based on preliminary estimates received from a local, experienced engineering firm. The purpose of the study will be to fill in the gaps in our knowledge on things such as:

  • Parking
  • Access to the trails
  • Fencing required
  • Considerations for the rebuilding of the bridge over the Charles
  • Grade crossings: impact to roads, and required signage

With this sort of knowledge in hand, BCRTA felt that it could effectively put together a credible plan to support a proposal for town meeting in spring 2013, that will secure the lease from there MBTA as well as the required liability insurance. With these in hand, BCRTA and the town would be in a position to move the project forward, beginning with the removal of the rails and the ties, leading to an initial phase of the rail trail available as early as 2014.

The Board of Selectmen have unanimously endorsed the funding, and the CPC has voted to approve it as well. There is broad support throughout the town, so there is little reason to expect it wouldn't be passed. Needham Bikes is very much in favor of Article 11.