HARWICH — The 2.25-mile reconstruction of Lower County Road received the endorsement of selectmen on a 3-2 vote Monday night. The project has been estimated to cost $5.5 million, but Department of Public Works Director Lincoln Hooper told the board he is anticipating bids to be much lower.
Hooper told selectmen his department sees this project as the priority road improvement for the community. The project was ready to go forward a year ago, but with other capital costs facing the town, such as the $24 million wastewater debt exclusion, the decision was made to move it back a year. That has allowed the water department to conduct $1.2 million in infrastructure upgrades on the roadway before a new surface is applied.
Voters will be asked to approve $4,560,475 for the project in the annual town meeting through a debt exclusion ballot question. Hooper said his department will contribute $1 million from its annual road maintenance fund.
Selectmen Michael MacAskill and Donald Howell voted not to support the funding request. MacAskill objected to the number of capital projects going out for debt exclusion votes that are driving the town budget to an unsustainable level. There has been a 7 percent annual increase and a hike of 37.8 percent increase in the town budget since 2015, he said.
“I'm not going to support it. We continue piling on capital projects, the harbor, the fire department, wastewater,” MacAskill said. “It's time to put the brakes on and let the taxes come down. The cost of debt exclusion projects is driving these budgets.”
Howell said he voted to place the article on the warrant to hear the arguments, but he was also concerned about debt. “The public has to determine if it's urgent enough to fund this year, instead of next year,” Howell said.
The town is pursuing a “stand alone project” and not a Transportation Improvement Project which relies on state and federal funding. That route would require that the town adhere to the state's Complete Streets program that would require the addition of bike lanes and ADA compliant sidewalks, Hooper said, requiring a road width of 43 feet. Lower County Road is only 40 feet wide, so property takings would be necessary. He also said the Complete Streets program does not fit the character of Cape Cod.
The project addresses poor road surface conditions, structural defects with its base, non-compliant sidewalks and old and failing drainage systems. Hoope said this is a “book job” and does not require a lot of engineering. A TIP project would have cost $350,000 in engineering fees, compared to just over $40,000 for the town project, he said.
But Hooper said he anticipates the bids to come in under the projection based on a similar project just done in Brewster. He also said there is a lot of interest in the project; 19 contractors requested bid packages. The bids will be opened on April 16.
Using $1 million from his department's road maintenance fund will postpone some projects, but Hooper roads in Harwich are in much better condition than in other surrounding towns. He said they could take a hiatus on planned road projects; since January, road projects have been shut down, except for two emergencies, to preserve funds.
Selectman Larry Ballantine asked if there were other roads the town could pursue TIP funds for improvements. There was no political will to build a Complete Streets project for Route 124, Hooper noted, also pointing out the town has just learned the Route 28 TIP project from Herring River Bridge to Division Street has been pushed back to 2024 to accommodate a Yarmouth project. The TIP funding program addresses state property or intersections in state roads, and other roads in town do not have the required footprint to accommodate the 43-foot width, he said.
The Lower County Road project has waited its turn on the capital plan and should be funded this year, Hooper said. “Don't kick the can down the road,” he said.