The condition of Newton’s roads, school & municipal buildings, and parks & playgrounds are important to our daily quality of life. Sewer/water/stormwater systems, information technology, city vehicles and equipment keep our city running. Let’s invest wisely and prioritize preventative maintenance. Let’s ease traffic congestion by making Newton safer for bikers and pedestrians, using smart traffic lights in well-designed intersections, and advocating for better MBTA service.
While we have made measurable progress improving the condition of our city infrastructure, there is still much work in front of us. In the area of transportation, we are experiencing longer rush hours with heavy traffic, too many roads in poor shape, and too many places with unsafe or unpleasant conditions for walking and biking. Public transit service from the MBTA for buses and commercial rail runs too infrequently and is too often inaccessible for the mobility impaired.
In 2009, I co-chaired the Newton Citizen Advisory Group (CAG), tasked with identifying Newton’s structural deficiencies. On the CAG, I used my experience as a strategic planner to draft a comprehensive report that has served as the blueprint for many infrastructure and system upgrades undertaken by Mayor Warren and the City Council.
As City Councilor, I’ve made this a priority, taking the lead on numerous initiatives upgrading city infrastructure, including our water/sewer/stormwater systems, school facilities, and parks and open spaces. We have come a long way, but there’s still much to be done.
CITY INFRASTRUCTURE & ASSETS – NEWTON’S PUBLIC PLACES
In the last seven years, we have significantly advanced needed improvements and caretaking of Newton’s essential public assets – buildings, roads, sewer/water/stormwater systems, parks and playgrounds, service vehicles, equipment, and information technology, especially in our schools.
Valued at over $1 billion, we now have a much more robust inventory of these capital assets, including their condition, maintenance needs and replacement dates. Mayor Warren and the City Council have created a thoughtful and well-organized capital improvement plan. We have also significantly increased the funding for its implementation; investment has increased from approximately 3% to 5.5% of revenues in the last eight years.
There is more work to be done.
Fixing structural deficiencies
We have significant, needed investments not yet shown in our 5 to 10 year funding schedule. Webster Woods is the lowest rated item on our current Capital Investment Plan (CIP) with no funding identified. The Jeanette Curtis West “Hut” in the Newton Centre Playground is both heavily used and in bad repair, but isn’t on the CIP for the foreseeable future.
The Library needs more space and funding to reconfigure its current facility; the children’s room is small, the teen space crowded, computer classroom space too limited, carpets are dangerously worn, and the restrooms need upgrades.
The bathhouse at Crystal Lake is heavily used but in poor condition and not accessible. The Senior Center is crowded and shabby. These are just a few examples.
The long‐term capital needs of our schools continue to be a priority. Looking ahead, the “old” Lincoln Eliot will need work so it can serve as swing space in the future. A complete renovation of Ward School (~$50M) as well as significant investments in Williams, Countryside, Franklin and Mason Rice are on the horizon. Large capital maintenance items – roof replacements, new generators and boilers, upgrades to windows and masonry – must be ongoing.
To ensure unparalleled public safety, we need more funding for both our Police and Fire Departments in the next few years. This includes upgrading to a reliable, robust, and redundant emergency communications system. To do this, we need redundant systems and upgrades.
Significant improvements to Fire Station #2 -West Newton (~$10M) and Fire Station #1 -Newton Corner (~$7m) are anticipated. We will explore the need for and cost of a renovated police headquarters (~$36M) soon.
With the Horace Mann School moving into the newly renovated Carr School, we need a serious analysis of the services and space for Parks and Recreation and Senior Services. Should we use the Horace Mann facility for a youth and intergenerational community center and year‐round recreational activities and programming?
The Parks and Recreation Department itself is in an old and leaky building. We also need to evaluate the condition and function of our Department of Public Works and Public Buildings structures (Eliot, Crafts, Rumford) to see if they need consolidation and refurbishment. A master plan is desperately needed.
We have 306 miles of water mains, 286 miles of sewer and 280 miles of storm drains. Since 2010, the City has developed a strategic investment plan for each of the systems. I am proud of the work that City Councilor Deb Crossley and I did with the Utilities and Engineering Divisions and the Mayor’s office to define and develop a thoughtful approach to prioritizing the work, determining over how many years the work should be done, and laying out a predictable funding schedule for our residents and businesses.
We will be investing $4.7 million annually in the sewer system, $4.2 million in the water system and over $2 million in the stormwater system. Each year, we review the work in each of the three systems and update the plan. Thus, the plan is a living document.
The municipal building maintenance fund for small capital projects is only $150,000. In other words, we budget limited funds for capital projects that cost less than $75,000 against over $10 million in identified needs. We need to create a more thorough inventory of capital assets in this category, rigorously identify our capital needs, and create a prioritization plan and an up-to-date funding strategy. (Items that cost more than $75,000 are included in the CIP.)
We also need a management plan for each building and each of our parks, recreation and conservation areas.
Communications and Technology
The City of Newton needs to have the appropriate technology to ensure the city has the capacity to run its programs well and efficiently. The City has extensive wired and wireless communications, hardware & software, sound & projection systems, and fiber optic cable to support the 3,500 people who work in our City and schools. With a budget of $1 million or less annually in the municipal budget, this area may be underfunded and needs a thorough review.
From Customer Services to Human Services, technology plays a crucial role in every department’s tool kit to help serve our constituents. During the past several years, technology has become more local, social and mobile, with smart phones capable of acting as portable computers that can take pictures, close work orders, search the Internet, and send emails and text messages. Mobility is the most requested resource by all departments. The need for an improved “user experience” will drive the creation of more layered approaches in application design with the emphasis on increasing citizen services and untethering desktop workers by providing wireless devices, thus increasing mobility and improving efficiency for employees and citizens alike.
Establishing a vision and positioning the City of Newton for the future requires continuous evaluation of current technology infrastructure, applications, security, and customer interfaces, an understanding of the future of technology, and the development of a blueprint for investments in and modernization of the City’s technology. This is an area that requires more planning and likely more investment in personnel and infrastructure.
Mobile computing and infrastructure – fiber, copper, data centers, etc. – will need to be updated and expanded. The software, cloud services and applications for our financial systems, asset management, work order processing, planning, interdepartmental communications, and communication with the public are under strain.
We have opportunities to streamline our work using digital means. We can achieve operating and workforce efficiencies, integration with suppliers and “customers,” and more effective ways to capture and analyze information and data. There are also important opportunities for increasing citizen input and creating even more robust community engagement through technology. Security must be constantly monitored so all city servers are protected from internet intruders. Plus, we must provide ongoing user support and training.
While perhaps not traditionally considered “infrastructure,” Newton’s public shade trees are an important part of our city environment. Trees clearly contribute to a sense of place, a connection to nature and the beauty of our City. Simultaneously, they make for safer and more pleasant walking environments, tend to calm traffic speeds, and absorb stormwater. The environmental benefits are significant, protecting people from rain, sun and heat while absorbing pollutants and improving the air quality. I’m committed to our “Complete Streets” approach in which we plant trees when sidewalks and roads are reconstructed. Through this plan, over the next five years, the goal is to plant over 1,200 trees. In addition, we have inventoried where trees have been lost to storm damage or poor condition. Using this data, we can plant an additional 1,800 trees over the next 15 years.
Spending on our capital assets will need to increase to perhaps 7% of revenues in order to get our infrastructure into good repair and maintain it properly. Ultimately, this additional investment will save us money: it costs more to repair and replace than to maintain. Also, if interest rates stay low, investing now – if we have sufficient funds to do so – will cost less than in a period with higher rates.
TRANSPORTATION: ROADS, TRAFFIC, PARKING, SAFETY, BIKING & WALKING
Mayor Warren recently engaged a consulting firm to lay out a transportation strategy. It stresses reliability and safety, goals I fully support. I am committed to fleshing out these goals and implementing them in coming years.
The strategy is based on community goals that I share:
- Public streets should serve all users – young or old, regardless of ability or whether they are driving, walking or biking (Complete Streets).
- We aim to eliminate fatalities and vastly reduce injuries on our streets (Vision Zero).
- Give people multiple ways to reach their destinations—which for Newton means not just fixing our roads, but advocating for better MBTA service, exploring alternatives to the T (shuttles, jitney, bike share, car share), and connecting and expanding off-road pedestrian and bike paths.
- Reduce congestion and emissions by encouraging and enabling more walking, biking, transit and ride sharing and making traffic flow better.
Newton’s roads have been neglected—and yet it is the largest publicly-owned space in the city. Thanks to a pavement inspection service, we know that 13% of our roads are in poor condition and another 22% are just fair—about 99 miles of our 350 miles of roadway.
Even with the addition of $1 million dollars a year from the 2013 override, Newton has invested too little in our roadways—as a result, the pavement condition kept getting worse and the amount needed to repair our streets kept growing.
Mayor Warren’s administration developed a 10-year, $100 million plan to both repair roads and keep them better maintained. If implemented, the plan will bring our roads to recognized industry standards. The plan sets priorities based on the overall pavement conditions, traffic counts, crash history, needed utility work, connecting the bicycle and pedestrian network and coordinating with planned signal and village improvements. I support this plan, but am also committed to fixing roads in the worst condition regardless of how many homes or vehicles they serve.
Each road project presents an opportunity to get it right in regards to taking care of the safety of all users, organizing, optimizing, and sometimes calming traffic, planting trees, fixing and adding curbs and sidewalks, installing ADA-compliant curb cuts, adjusting lighting, and taking care of the underground utilities—stormwater, water, sewer and gas lines—so that once a street is paved and striped, it won’t need to be dug up again for decades.
Improving safety for all will mean that the city will have to look carefully at intersections—where most of our crashes occur. I am particularly interested in upgrading some of the 100 traffic signals to include vehicle detection systems to avoid unnecessary idling and queuing, to have safer crossing for pedestrians and cyclists, and to allow signals to coordinate with each other. This also improves traffic flow.
In many cases, changing the geometry of intersections will also improve their function by organizing traffic more efficiently, making crashes less frequent, creating safe spaces for pedestrians and cyclists, and shortening crossing times for people on foot. Such intersection redesigns also add reliability and reduce the city’s electrical usage.
Placemaking, Parking and the Transportation Network:
Roads and intersections make up the bulk of our public spaces in village centers and commercial destinations. With the plan to upgrade West Newton Square, Newton started down a path to enliven such spaces and to make them more welcoming and safe for pedestrians and bicyclists, while also organizing auto flow better.
Both the process and the principles guiding the West Newton plan have been excellent—starting with input from residents and businesses about their needs. We learned that people wanted sufficient parking, inviting gathering places, trees and shade, a sense of place, and sustainable, convenient and safe travel.
The plan focused on three areas: safety, experience, and environmental sustainability. Enhancements will include a safer and more attractive walking environment, with places to gather, shade trees, better lighting and shorter crossings. Protected bike lanes will make getting around the square safer for cyclists of all abilities, as ADA-compliant crossings, shade and benches will make the square more welcoming for the disabled. Better parking meter technology will make it easier to manage parking for turnover as well as convenience.
I support a similar process for Newtonville (which needs attention to safety and the village walking experience), Newton Corner (where walking, driving and biking are unsafe), Wells Avenue at Nahantan (severe congestion), the Washington Street corridor (where most of Newton’s crashes are concentrated), Newton Centre, Newton Highlands and other villages.
Managing parking properly will reduce the number of cars circling for spaces, add convenience for shoppers-in-a-hurry, encourage the use of alternate modes of travel, and make villages more lively, as storefront spaces are more accessible to customers (currently many spaces are taken by employees).
Creating more transportation options:
For transportation to be reliable and for traffic to flow, people will need better options within Newton. If we can reduce short, single-occupant car trips within Newton by as little as 10%, we could see much of our traffic congestion evaporate.
A key gap is in the “last mile” between transit stops and a traveler’s destination. Newton needs to explore public-private shuttle services and various ride-hailing services as a way to bridge that gap. Another “last mile” option is Bike Share, which I support, as it has proven itself as a transit option in neighboring communities.
For Bike Share to be truly successful, the network of streets safe for bikes (protected where possible for all ability levels) will need to be built out. Newton’s bicycle network plan needs the kind of planning and prioritization we have applied to our pavement and sidewalks.
Newton’s express bus service is very popular, but bus commuters there and along our north-south routes often stand exposed in all weather, and buses are often blocked by traffic. Other communities have radically improved bus service merely by moving stops to the other side of traffic signals and bringing them to the edge of the travel lane (no merging time for buses), giving buses signal priority (like fire trucks), and creating bus shelters where prepayment is possible (no time lost in paying fares). We should explore these options with the MBTA.
Newton must advocate for better MBTA service in general—more buses, more stations fully accessible on the commuter rail and the Green Line, and better information about when the next bus or train will arrive. The commuter rail also needs more frequent trains.
Our sidewalk network is fragmented and in poor repair. Along with roadways, I am committed to continue the plan to close sidewalk gaps, focused first around schools and in village centers, and to fix the sidewalks now in poor repair. The plan is to add over two miles of new sidewalk and repair another two miles annually.
Policies to reduce congestion:
Newton has started encouraging mixed-use developments, which reduce the need to drive for every trip, as well as separating parking rent from apartment rent—which will encourage tenants to think carefully about car ownership. We have also been making spaces for car share, so that residents have the option of owning fewer vehicles—and freeing up parking space for others, or for other uses.
Newton has also started to encourage large employers to engage in Transportation Demand Management—a set of tools that help reduce the number of cars driven to any one office building. Newton itself is a large employer and could adopt many low- or no-cost tools to encourage employees to adopt more sustainable transportation choices than one-employee/one-car, and take the pressure off our streets. I support exploring the implementation of such policies, including allowing employees to take federal tax credits for transit or biking to work.
Note: I have used documents created by and for the City of Newton, sometimes word-for-word, when writing this position paper.