I know Blogging Belmont readers have heard a lot from me about “critical meetings” to show support for the long-planned Belmont Community Path by now. And there’s probably a bit of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” thing going on. But this time I’m serious: the Community Path faces a critical vote Monday evening by the Board of Selectmen and there’s at least a passing chance that staunch and sustained opposition to a common sense route along the Commuter Rail tracks by abutters on Channing Road will force a decision that could doom the construction of the path.
So – once again – Community Path supporters need to turn out in force to the Selectmen’s Hearing Room at Belmont Town Hall on Monday. The draft agenda for the meeting shows the Community Path discussion starting at 7:40 PM, but you want to arrive before then (say 7:15 or 7:20) just to be sure!
If you can’t make it but want to voice your support for a safe route along the north side of the tracks, just send an email to our Selectmen (firstname.lastname@example.org) and copy the members of the Community Path Implementation Advisory Committee (CPIAC) at email@example.com. Also, copy Town Planner Jeffrey Wheeler (firstname.lastname@example.org) on your message. Thanks!!
The back story
If you’re thinking “wait, I thought all this Community Path stuff was settled,” I don’t blame you. From the 50,000 foot view: the Town has been moving steadily toward the realization of an off-road walking and biking path through Belmont alongside the existing Fitchburg rail line. The engineering firm, PARE, completed its feasibility study for a path one year ago. That 58 page report (PDF here) laid out and ranked a number of path options, consisting of various segments, from Brighton Ave – the eastern end of the proposed path – through to the western terminus at the Waltham border at Beaver Brook Reservation. It then recommended a route as the most desirable.
As I noted when I wrote back on October 5: that’s where the trouble started. PARE was mindful of the desire for a pedestrian underpass between the Winn Brook neighborhood and the High School, and responsive staunch opposition of a small number of Channing Road residents whose property would abut a path that ran along the north side of the Fitchburg line. Their recommended route included a complicated North-South-North switchback from Brighton Street, across the tracks to the south (Belmont High) side of the rail line and then back to the north side through the underpass on Alexander Avenue.
Funding on the line
What’s happened since is that the MBTA and the Massachusetts Dept. of Transportation (DOT) have signaled their willingness to invest in the Belmont Community Path. State and federal money could eventually pay up to 90% of the cost of construction – a huge gift to the town. And, last week, Town Meeting voted unanimously to allocate $400,000 for the design of the underpass (Community Path Phase 1a), moving that forward. The state has indicated it is willing to pay for construction of that tunnel as part of the overall project, regardless of whether the path runs through the tunnel. That takes a big reason for the south side route off the table.
But the MBTA has also highlighted some things they want changed in the design. At the top of the list: the at-grade track crossing at Brighton, which they see as unneeded and dangerous. As Sen. Brownsberger has indicated, the MBTA and Mass DOT would like the town to address that in their design for Phase 1B, which covers the path from Brighton Street to Belmont Center. Regardless of whether you agree with the MBTA’s thinking, Sen. Brownsberger has made it clear that ignoring this simple request may well jeopardize state funding for construction of the path.
This seems like a no-brainer. But as I indicated last month, Belmont’s own CPIAC is sharply divided on the north-south issue. Following a contentious meeting on Oct. 5, a majority of members of that committee (3-2) voted to recommend not updating the top proposed alignment for phase 1B from the south to the north side. That Committee’s chairman, Russ Leino, has indicated that he very strongly disagrees with the committee’s vote, but will need to present that recommendation to the BOS on Monday, along with the other members of CPIAC.
That puts the issue of the north vs. south side alignment in the hands of the Board of Selectmen. If they vote to listen to the request from the MBTA, they will need to vote contrary to the recommendation of their own advisory committee. They will also incur the wrath of abutters. If they vote with CPIAC, they will be turning a deaf ear to the wishes of the MBTA and DOT – the projects two main funders- and Belmont’s representatives on Beacon Hill, who have counseled the town to work with the state’s request to guarantee priority funding.
You to the rescue
That’s where you come in. You’ll make the Selectmen’s “tough vote” a lot easier by showing up to their hearing room Monday evening and voicing strong support for a compromise with the MBTA that will send the path along the North side of the tracks. With that vote, Belmont can almost guarantee priority funding to cover the vast majority of Phase 1a and 1b of the Community Path and give Belmont residents a fresh new off-road pedestrian path from Belmont Center all the way to Alewife and The Minuteman trail.
Let’s make this happen, Belmont! I’ll see you Monday evening!