By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries and letters to the Editor of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
If the nation’s roads, bridges, and other infrastructure were a student in the Somerville Public Schools, you can bet our staff would be working overtime to find a way to intervene and help it do a little better. That’s because once again in 2017, our nation’s infrastructure barely eked out a passing grade of D+ on the annual American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) report card. In this case though, it’s the City and the Commonwealth that are springing into action as we methodically tackle our most pressing road, sidewalk, park, water, sewer, building, and other infrastructure needs as we strive to get Somerville ahead of the curve. This week, I’ll update you on some of this spring’s projects (below), but I also want to offer a little context.
Neglect of our public infrastructure has real consequences both nationally and here at home. The ASCE estimates it costs Massachusetts drivers $539 per year in car damage to drive on the Commonwealths underfunded roads. They rank 14.4 percent of the bridges in our state as structurally deficient, and they estimate there are more than $8 billion in unmet wastewater needs in the Commonwealth.
Mind you, every state has similar challenges. But money isn’t flowing toward infrastructure from Washington. As one expert, Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution, put it to U.S. News & World Report last year, “There isn’t going to be any cavalry coming to the rescue anytime soon.” So it’s falling more and more to states, cities and towns to find ways to fill the gaps—as we are trying to do in Somerville.
It’s a tall order for cities and towns to come up with the millions (and in some cases billions) needed to keep our infrastructure sound. It shouldn’t be this way. But faced with this challenge, we must craft local solutions. Smart, community-driven development is one solutions. Economic growth as we are seeing and seeking in Assembly Row and Union Square can help not only generate more tax revenue to help cover needs but also deliver developer contributions or public-private partnerships as we saw when Assembly Row Developer Federal Realty helped fund the Orange Line stop and transformed Baxter Park from an overgrown no-go area to an appealing waterfront park. The City also actively seeks state and federal grants for infrastructure, and we work with the Board of Aldermen to carefully allocate other city funds.
But ultimately, we need a national culture change around infrastructure. We as citizens must demand that our nation invest in the infrastructure that will keep us competitive in a global economy be it public transit, energy investments, school buildings, roads, or other critical needs. So while we all work on that, here’s just some of what we’ll be upgrading in Somerville this construction season.
Roads and Roadway Infrastructure
In a City as old as Somerville (175 years!), much of our underground infrastructure is in need of major upgrade. In the case of Cedar St., for example, portions of the water and sewer systems are more than 100 years old. While we’ve made great progress, with projects like Somerville Ave. and East Broadway, the work continues. Two of the major projects that continue in 2017 are Beacon St., and Cedar St.
Work on Beacon St., a MassDOT project, has already begun for the season. Eversource is out now replacing gas mains working in two directions from Cooney St. to Washington St. and then Cooney St. south to the Cambridge line. The project contractors, Newport Construction, are tentatively set to begin excavation work in June. Beacon St. remains open to two-way traffic, and as of now, there are no anticipated road closures. Most work will affect parking and lane closures, however, the cycle track is closed for the duration of the season. Once complete, Beacon will have upgraded water and sewer mains below grade, improved road surface less prone to pot-holes, the city’s first separated bike lane, and improved sidewalks, crosswalks, and traffic signals. For more information visit www.somervillema.gov/beacon and sign up for alerts.
On Cedar St., construction will soon be in full swing to continue work to replace the aging water mains. The work will require blasting and jackhammering (pre-blasting surveys are being conducted now) just south of Summer St., beginning in May, and then the project will move to the area between Summer St. and Highland Ave. As a result of the construction, there will be temporary detours during the day with plans to open Cedar St. during nights and on weekends. Additionally, abutters will experience temporary water service disruptions as the work progresses, but impacted residents will be contacted prior to shutting off service. For more information on the project, visit www.somervillema.gov/cedarstreet.
Parks and Open Spaces
Since 2004, we have added or updated more than 25 parks and open spaces. As a City, we have a goal to increase open space, and so our work continues. This year, some major parks projects will include:
Construction at Lincoln Park will continue this season, and the project is still on schedule and projected for an on-time completion (though this can always change).
Once complete, Lincoln Park will feature new natural grass recreation fields and an expanded schoolyard at the Argenziano School (opened in fall September 2016) with increased ADA-accessible play features. Additionally, the space will reduce pavement and improve the City’s tree canopy, as well as improve permeability and storm water retention.
Hoyt Sullivan Park
The final design for upgrades to Hoyt Sullivan Park was presented to the public last month as the fourth of a series of public meetings. We recently hired a contractor, and construction is set to begin as soon as next week.
The Hoyt Sullivan design was created in response to community needs and with much community input. The design incorporates sustainable elements and natural materials, improves security through better sightline and increased lighting, and harnesses the unique feature of the visual connection between the park and adjacent railroad corridor with a proposed new observation deck. Renovations are being funded by a combination of money from the Community Preservation Act, Massachusetts PARC grant, and U.S. Housing and Urban Development Block grant. For updates and more information, visit www.somervillema.gov/hoytsullivan.
Winter Hill Community Innovation Schoolyard
We’ve released the bid for the first phase of the Winter Hill Schoolyard project and are hoping to break ground later this spring so that the field can be used this fall. Phase 1 is in direct response to the school’s need for a better physical education space as well as the City’s need for addition field space. It involves transforming the lower level asphalt court to a small turf field with natural sand infill. Once the transformation is complete, the space will go from being 100 percent impervious to being 95 percent pervious, which will help with storm water runoff because storm water will now be able to percolate through the surface into the ground water below.
We’re continuing to work with teachers and the broader community on the second phase of the project: the renovation of the Winter Hill schoolyard with the goals of improving site conditions and creating outdoor classrooms and more engaging play spaces. We’ll be holding another public meeting about the project, so stay tuned for details by visiting www.somervillema.gov/winterhill or sign up for the City newsletter at www.somervillema.gov/newsletter.
Located beneath the Nunziato field and dog park are water holding tanks that are crucial to helping relieve potential flooding impacts in Union Square and surrounding areas—but it badly needs improvements. In addition to upgrading that antiquated subsurface system, the project will feature a renovated park that will include a new natural grass playing field, dog park, and increased seating areas. Construction could begin later this season. All are invited to participate in a fourth public meeting Tuesday, April 25, at 6:30 p.m. at the Somerville High School library, 81 Highland Ave. Visit www.somervillema.gov/nunziato for more details.
And then there’s always more
Many other smaller construction projects like sidewalk and street paving, replacing water mains, and paving sections of the bike path will also be taking place this season. While construction projects can present inconveniences, these efforts are part of a larger vision to improve our community and meet the needs of residents, businesses, and visitors. So I’ll thank you in advance both for your patience—and for supporting local infrastructure for your city.
Stay up-to-date with construction projects, service interruption, detours, big events and more by signing up for City alerts at www.somervillema.gov/alerts. For information about upcoming community meetings and other City news, sign up for the City’s email newsletter at www.somervillema.gov/newsletter.