MBTA cites safety and accessibility issues, Mayor Ballantyne expresses frustration
(Somerville Wire) – The opening of the new multi-use Somerville Community Path extension from central Somerville to East Cambridge has been pushed back for the third time—having been originally slated to open in February, then getting delayed to March/April, and now to June.
Soon the project will be six months behind. “As with all MBTA construction contracts, the contract contains elements of consequences related to incomplete work, which are assessed as part of the project close-out process,” Lisa Battiston, MBTA deputy press secretary told the Wire.
After contractors complete their work, the T’s System-Wide Accessibility and Safety team will conduct a walk-through to ensure the path is fully operational and ADA-compliant, Battiston explained. The MBTA spokesperson did not respond when asked to expand on her statement.
Asked for comment, Mayor Katjana Ballantyne said, “Like other community members, I too am frustrated that Somerville’s long-awaited Community Path is still not ready for public use. We are urging the MBTA to prioritize remaining work on the path.”
According to an update on the City’s Green Line Extension webpage, published Monday, contractors are “finishing final construction punch-list items” which include installing fencing and guardrails, electrical equipment for lighting and emergency call boxes, and adjusting pavement grade for drainage.
But it wasn’t the City or MBTA that announced the most recent delay on the project; it was Mass Streets Blog—a publication of the “non-profit technology and advocacy organization, Open Plans.” Communications from the MBTA regarding progress on the path have been lacking and some mobility groups have expressed disappointment.
“We’d love to see updates in the MBTA website for GLX and in their email list. This is an extremely popular project,” Lynn Weisman, co-president of Friends of the Community Path said.
Brendan Kearney, deputy director of Walk Massachusetts, a pedestrian advocacy group, said he also didn’t see any communications prior to the Mass Streets Blog post. “I’ve signed up for every notification list from MassDot, MBTA—I had not seen anything about [the path].”
“The MBTA has been a bit of a black box on this,” said Councilor Jake Wilson. “[Constituents] ask me about the path on a daily basis, often multiple times a day,” he added. So frequently, in fact, that Wilson made a webpage dedicated to the question, is the path open yet?, which he shared on Twitter last month. A quick search on the Somerville Reddit page for the Community Path extension shows monthly threads on the topic, filled with speculations and questions from confused Somerville residents.
Ballantyne said she is urging the MBTA “to publish a schedule update with a list of outstanding work items so that residents have a better understanding of the project’s status.” Adding that once the MBTA sets a date for the path opening, the City will share it across its communication channels including the project website and the construction newsletter.
According to a lease agreement with the MBTA, Somerville will assume ownership of the path after it opens. The lease was approved by the Somerville City Council in February and is in the process of being signed by the City and the MBTA, Somerville Senior Mobility Planner Viola Augustin said.
There is speculation among advocacy groups and residents that the project and the lease signing is being delayed to ensure incomplete work doesn’t fall on the City’s plate after the path opens. “It’s good to hold contractors and companies to their words. Because it’s being built for MassDoT, then they’re turning over to the City. The City doesn’t want to be saddled with other costs that it shouldn’t be,” Kearney said.
The lease details the handoff of the path’s ownership from the MBTA to the City and also allows for added lighting and greenery. Augustin said the City is currently working with MBTA to install additional lighting and will continue to work with the MBTA for the next two years “to maximize and optimize planted areas.”
But one thing the City can’t change is the width of the path, which has caused some concern. Friends of the Community Path and other advocacy groups recommended a 12-14 foot width since the inception of the path to accommodate heavy traffic. But the path averages 10 feet across and gets narrower at sections lined with railings.
Walk Massachusetts’ Brendan Kearney said he suspects there may be conflict, but he hopes path users will be courteous of one another. Friends of the Community Path’s Lynn Weisman said she expects the sheer volume of traffic might prevent cyclists from speeding.
“I’ve been pushing more for speed regulation on some segments of the path,” said Wilson. “There are some areas without a shoulder to take to. It’s a very different animal from the existing Community Path. Some members of the cycling community are leery of speed limits being used. I’m hopeful that the folks who are opposing speed regulation will get a look at it.”
Despite the path being a primary access route for commuting cyclists, Weisman says she hopes the pathway will adopt a “linear park” style comparable to the current Community Path which sees a mix of walkers, runners, cyclists, and children at play. But at the moment, the Community Path extension is still empty.
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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire