Guest columnist Rutherford Platt: Is Northampton a vassal to MassDOT?

  • Hockanum Road and Pleasant Street in Northampton. Gazette file photo

Published: 11/5/2021 10:13:02 AM

On April 24, 2019, a phalanx of highway engineers from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and Parsons Engineering traveled to Northampton from Boston to hold a “public hearing” on a four-year, $57 million state project to rebuild portions of Interstate-91 and adjacent streets in Northampton.

Their audience at the poorly publicized hearing totaled four people: three farmers (two from Hatfield) and one “local citizen,” according to the sign-in sheet. No one represented the city or the downtown business community. The project plans were revealed only a half-hour before the hearing and thereafter were withdrawn from public access.

This was the only public information event held by the MassDOT to discuss its megaproject now underway to replace the I-91 bridges over Route 5 near Atwood Drive and over Hockanum Road. The first Gazette article on the project (“I-91 bridge work to begin,” July 26, 2021) caught my attention.

Why do I care about it? Partly it is my ingrained skepticism of big-ticket, top-down engineering projects dating back to my early career dueling with the Richard J. Daley administration over highway and urban renewal projects in Chicago. (I helped block Daley’s “Crosstown Expressway” that would have obliterated a swathe of blue collar and minority neighborhoods.)

More immediately, I sensed that MassDOT was not being candid with the local community about potential impacts on downtown Northampton, and the city had not raised any such concerns. After failing to access the plans locally or online, I appealed to state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa to intercede with MassDOT. Incredibly, she was required to submit a Freedom of Information Act request (for a state project in her own district!), which finally pried the plans loose, along with a transcript of the April, 2019 hearing. Those public documents are now literally at my fingertips thanks to our hard-working state representative.

Certainly we can all observe that the columns holding up the overpass at Route 5 need serious repair or replacement — as do those for many other aging highways. But this project is not confined to rebuilding the Route 5 interchange. It will extend along a mile of I-91 to include the overpass over Hockanum Road, a minor city street and dirt road leading to the Meadows.

Combining the Route 5 and Hockanum overpass replacements into a single mammoth project, MassDOT intends to construct a temporary mile-long roadway within the I-91 median strip to divert northbound and later southbound traffic while replacing the regular lanes in each direction. The project also includes bike lanes and sidewalks along a stretch of Route 5 and vaguely described work at Hockanum Road.

The plans do not mention traffic diversions to Route 5 due to lane closures, accidents, or driver impatience. Apparently it is assumed the temporary roadway will obviate that. But how will the temporary roadway itself be constructed and later removed without significant traffic impacts?

Pleasant Street — the segment of Route 5 though downtown Northampton — has evolved in recent years into a dense, mixed-use urban neighborhood. Major public and private investments in the corridor include two new mixed-income apartment buildings, the Amtrak station, health and social service agencies, cannabis dispensaries, the traffic roundabout, the rail trail crossing, and COVID-era restaurant expansions into the street.

With 10 crosswalks between the roundabout and Main Street, Pleasant Street today is more walkable than drivable — a success story of downtown redevelopment. But unpredictable surges of I-91 traffic, including countless diesel-belching trucks, will cause gridlock, degrade air quality, block access to local businesses and infuriate everyone.

Although the project plans ignore the potential for I-91 traffic diversions through downtown, Richard Masse from MassDOT stated at the April 2019 hearing: “There will be a preconstruction conference with all the City departments invited. And once its under construction ... we’ll work with our contractor when we know some of those timeframes more specifically to get the word out that when those impacts, including like the detours, will be.”

No such conference has in fact occurred. At the least, MassDOT owes Northampton a well-publicized public information and question-and-answer opportunity. Ideally this should happen soon enough to adjust project design and timing to mitigate avoidable impacts. As Masse promised, the city should expect to be notified when traffic diversions are foreseeable. And if and when serious gridlock occurs, the state should pay compensation for excessive costs to the city and its downtown businesses.

The bottom line is that local governments cannot act like vassals to a feudal overlord in the face of massive federal/state spending on public works. The state needs to hear from cities and towns as equal partners in project design, not as passive observers. They are literally where the rubber meets the road.

Rutherford Platt lives in Florence.

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