Old Winter Street area residents showed up in force at a recent selectmen’s meeting to argue for a sign limiting rush-hour access to the road, but the board deferred a decision for a month to gather more data.
At issue is Old Winter Street, which northbound afternoon commuters sometimes use to “jump the queue” and bypass some of the traffic stopped on Winter Street where it meets Trapelo Road. Residents said this is dangerous for several reasons: drivers turning into Old Winter Street drive too fast, the road is very narrow, and cars sometimes back up on the road before it rejoins Winter Street, blocking driveways and creating two lines of stopped cars leading up to Trapelo Road.
The Roadway and Traffic Committee (RTC) made a recommendation to the Board of Selectmen in 2015 and again this summer to put a “No Left Turn 4 to 7 p.m.” sign on Winter Street northbound as it approaches the southern end of Old Winter Street for a six-month trial period. The board declined the request in 2015, saying that the town’s public roads are open to all and expressing concern about setting a precedent for similar situations in Lincoln.
Earlier this year, the RTC made the recommendation again. Selectmen didn’t make a decision in June pending a new memo from the RTC, but they were reluctant to reverse the decision of the previous board.
“If nothing has changed and we’re getting the same request again, it’s almost akin to judge-shopping or forum-shopping,” Selectman James Craig said at the time. He reiterated that sentiment on September 25, saying, “What’s changed other than the fact that we have three new members here and the neighborhood is hoping to get a different result?”
RTC chair Ken Bassett noted that his group had renewed the request “primarily because this committee tries to help neighborhoods when it can” and that the situation was unique in the sense that restricting access to Old Winter Street would not create a new problem elsewhere. “This is not a part of that network in the sense that it doesn’t take you any place new,” he said.
The issue is not so much one of excessive speed as traffic volume, Police Chief Kevin Kennedy said, adding that recent observations did not reveal a dramatic backup onto Old Winter Street.
But residents were not mollified, saying that police and the town’s traffic engineer had not focused on the southern intersection of the two roads.
Conditions have in fact changed in the last two years, said Mike McLaughlin of 5 Old Winter St. More people are using smartphone apps to find local roads that will help them avoid congestion, and there are also more young children on Old Winter Street.
“People will come flying off Winter Street as soon as they see a backup at that bump. I’ve had a bunch of near-misses. I hope to God my kid doesn’t have to be hit to be a safety issue,” he said.
“I’m kind of wondering what the event has to be. You really don’t want a ghost bike on my street,” said Chris Murphy of 34 Old Winter St.
The RTC has twice been “tasked with studying this thoroughly,” said Steve Atlas of 31 Old Winter St. As far as respect for the process, “I feel like we’ve done that here… If we kick it back a third time, I begin to wonder what this process means.”
“This needs to be looked at in a very careful way,” cautioned Peter Braun, one of the selectmen who voted in 2015 not to authorize the sign. The larger issue is traffic to and from businesses in Waltham. Years ago, the town succeeded in having Winter Street made a one-way street near the intersection with Old County Road, but at the same time, the state also deemed the latter to be a state road, which could come back to haunt the town.
“If we start monkeying around with the fragile beast of handling our volume of traffic, my concern is we’re asking for legal problems,” Braun said.
Traffic in town certainly needs to be considered on a macro level, but selectmen have traditionally deferred to the RTC on road safety and signage, such as the decision earlier this year to install two more stop signs at the intersection of Weston and Silver Hills Roads, observed Tim Christenfeld, who lives at 50 Old Winter St.
“Safety, I think, trumps everything as far as I’m concerned… if it’s a safety issue, we need to consider it, whether it’s been brought before a prior board or not,” Craig said. However, he and the other selectmen opted to ask for more detailed traffic data now that summer is over and decide on the matter at their October 30 meeting.
“Doing due diligence to get fresh information is not kicking the can down the road,” Craig said.
Other neighboring towns have installed no-turn restrictions, including Concord, which prohibits right turns from Route 2 eastbound onto Sandy Pond Road from 7–9 a.m., noted Jay Donnelly of 35 Old Winter Street. “Quite honestly, I’m ashamed that we continue to debate and have an inability to act, and other towns are acting on our behalf,” he said.
“I feel inclined to go forward with the experiment, but if there’s some useful data we can gather in a defined period of time and be very clear about deadline,” it would be acceptable, Selectmen Jennifer Glass said.