CHATHAM — At least for the time being, it's all green lights for the controversial West Chatham Route 28 roadway project.
On Monday, regional transportation planners opted to keep the project as part of the current Transportation Improvement Program (TIP), triggering a 21-day public comment period before the Cape Cod Metropolitan Planning Organization takes a final vote.
Opponents of the roadway plan sought to have the agency bump the project to a future year or drop it from the TIP altogether. The $4,244,931 project is completely designed, and will remove the center turning lane between Barn Hill Road and George Ryder Road and add roundabouts at each intersection.
At the meeting, MassDOT District Projects Engineer Pam Haznar said the tentative schedule calls for the project to begin with utility work in January or February 2019, with road construction in the spring and fall of that year and again in the spring and fall of 2020.
“Ideally we're looking to end construction in November of 2020,” she said. Construction will not take place in the busy summer months, and will also be suspended in the worst part of the winter, she said. Haznar said she also believes that even when construction is underway, two lanes of traffic will likely remain open most of the time. She cautioned that the projections will remain preliminary until the project goes out to bid.
Selectman Amanda Love told the transportation officials that, in a 2-2 vote last week, the board of selectmen failed to pass a motion that would have endorsed the continuation of the roadway plan.
“In Chatham, a tie vote fails,” she said.
Rick Leavitt of the West Chatham Village and Business Association pointed out that the vote would have been 3-2 if board Chairman Jeffrey Dykens hadn't recused himself. At last week's meeting, Dykens said board member Seth Taylor called on him to recuse himself, citing a potential violation of the state's conflict of interest law. Dykens' wife owns a business in the construction area, and Dykens owns property abutting the project area.
David Burns of the West Chatham Association argued that the project should be tabled pending a further state review of how the changes would affect access to area businesses, what takings of private property would be needed, and whether two roundabouts should be placed so close together.
North Chatham resident Gloria Freeman argued that selectmen should have implemented a previous town meeting vote that directed the board to abandon the roadway plan. Freeman said the vote was binding, despite claims by project supporters that it was not. She asked why the roadway project is being strongly supported by what she described as a small number of people. Ultimately, those people will be ruining local businesses “and then buying land cheap for condominiums and multifamily houses. In other words, money.”
Project opponent Elaine Gibbs agreed, calling it “a massive team effort by developers and local government to eliminate the last vestige of Chatham's working class.” Opponents have also cited a petition against the project as well as opposition of many, but not all, of the business owners within the corridor.
Resident Karen McPherson said she looks forward to the safety enhancements that the project will bring, like a bike lane. She acknowledged that traffic is heavy in the area in the summer.
“In the summer on Cape Cod, you don't turn left,” she said. At the Route 28 intersections of George Ryder and Barn Hill roads, “the roundabouts solve that problem.”
Selectman Dean Nicastro said he supports the continuation of the West Chatham roadway project. With regards to the board's position, “I suggest you not attach too much significance to last week's board of selectmen vote,” he told the MPO members. Calling it “a gratuitous exercise,” Nicastro said the vote was the product of a board member “who is a candidate for reelection in about two weeks' time.”
“The issues you guys are having are really within the town,” MPO Chairman Steve Woelfel said.
Haznar said the goal is to have the project complete in two years, and the state will work with town officials to time the construction to have the least possible impact on area businesses. Because the road is being narrowed rather than expanded, it should be possible to keep two lanes of traffic open during most of the project.
“That's our goal,” she said.
MPO member Leo Cakounes, a county commissioner from Harwich, acknowledged those who said they would like to see the project tabled.
“I don't see the action of tabling as an option,” he said. Doing so would mean losing $4.2 million in grant funding, something Cakounes said he cannot support. There are no other projects in the five-year TIP that have progressed sufficiently to take the slot occupied by the West Chatham project in federal fiscal year 2018.
“If you were to move the Chatham project, you're probably dropping out of the TIP totally,” Woelfel said.
MPO member Sheryl McMahon said that if it were possible to delay the West Chatham project by a year or two, it would collide with the planned reconstruction of the intersection of Route 28, Crowell Road and Queen Anne Road, which is slated for federal fiscal year 2021. Both projects happening at the same time would be overly disruptive to motorists, she said.
Woelfel said the decision about whether to remove the project from the TIP belongs to the MPO, despite any difference of opinion in Chatham. The dispute cannot be allowed to hold up all of the other important roadway projects in the regional plan, “as well as the whole transit system,” he said.
The group voted unanimously to keep the West Chatham project in the TIP, triggering a 21-day public comment period. The MPO will likely vote on adopting the plan at its May 22 meeting.