NMCOG Suggestions 04/08/15

Note: A pdf version of this document is available here.


NMCOG hosted a meeting in the City of Lowell mayor’s conference room on 04/08/15 to gather citizen feedback to incorporate into the region’s transportation plan. The meeting was superb; many key players attended and it was an open and forward-thinking conversation.

Based on the success of that meeting I have four specific, actionable projects I would like to advocate for. I’m writing them up so I can go into more detail beyond the survey:

  1. Route 38 Walk-ability and Traffic Flow
  2. Make North Billerica Station Multi-modal
  3. Umass Lowell Station
  4. LRTA for Umass Lowell

1: Route 38 Walk-ability and Traffic Flow

Route 38 (Nesmith and Rogers streets in Lowell and Main Street in Tewksbury) is one of the highest traffic count roadways in the city:

In addition this one stretch of road:

Unfortunately it has four problems (from most important to least):

  1. It has inconsistent patches of side-walks making it un-walkable.
  2. It has no bike lanes.
  3. Traffic lights do not appear to be coordinated or well-planned as a system.
  4. There are redundant and inconsistent alignments.

All these issues appear to be tractable and they could be solved all together as one large project or split into individual projects. Let’s look at each individually starting with the sidewalks:

Route 38 Sidewalks

The best way to see the problem is to do a very simple test: Attempt to walk from Shedd Park in Lowell to Wal-Mart in Tewksbury:

Starting at Shedd Park the side-walks are excellent and the walk progresses well until one comes to the Dunkin’ Donuts where the sidewalk suddenly ends and becomes a parking lot. Note also there is no place to cross (although I argue that one should not have to cross the street here) and by the time one gets to the Jiffy Lube there is no place to walk so one must cross route 38 to use the side-walk on the other side:

Then the walk goes well on the other side of the street until we get to K-Mart. . .then the side-walk suddenly ends again and one must cross route 38 again (also note that if your destination was K-Mart there is no way to walk there because the side-walk goes nowhere):

Then the walk progresses to the 495 ramps where there is no way to stop the traffic from entering the on-ramps (one must hope that drivers will yield):

The walk goes well under 495 however when one gets to Home Depot there is no island on a divided lane crossing (also note that if your destination was Home Depot there is no way to walk there because, like K-Mart, the side-walk goes nowhere):

Once one gets past Home Depot the side-walk ends again and one must cross route 38 again:

From there one crosses route 38 a last time to get to Wal-Mart. Unlike K-Mart and Home Depot, Wal-Mart has side-walks to the store.

In summary the simple task of walking from Shedd Park to Wal-Mart is very difficult.

The un-walkability of route 38 has a direct impact on traffic; below are a few anecdotes to help illustrate:

  • We live in Wigginville (South Lowell) and my wife walks the kids to school every day, however she always takes the car to Market Basket because route 38 is too dangerous to walk.
  • One of my neighbours works at Home Depot; she used to walk but recently bought a car because the walk was too dangerous.
  • The Pyne Arts perpetually has too much traffic because parents who live close by feel that it is too dangerous to walk so they chose to drive their children.
  • Another neighbour works at Wal-Mart but walks the train tracks to work because route 38 is too dangerous.
  • I would imagine that the Tewksbury LRTA bus route would be more useful if riders could walk to other destinations on route 38 beyond the stops.

This in itself should be enough motivation to invest in route 38 walk-ability but I should also note that Cawley Stadium is a potential site for the new Lowell High School. If that site is chosen the walk-ability and traffic issues will become more acute (it could be wise to be pro-active rather then re-active):

Overall it looks like route 38 walk-ability might not be that difficult of a problem to solve; along most of the route buildings are not right on top of the street.

Route 38 Bicycle Lanes

There are no bicycle lanes on route 38 past Shedd Park:

  • There is room in some stretches for explicit bicycle lanes.
  • For the areas there is no room it would be useful to add shared lane markings.

Route 38 Traffic Flow

There are 14 traffic lights between the Hunts Falls bridge and Wal-Mart in Tewksbury; they don’t seem to be coordinated (more often the not one gets stuck at light after light and the area is subject to dense traffic jams during rush hour):

Coordinating the lights could be an easy win for traffic flow.

Route 38 Alignments

Route 38 has a number of alignments that don’t make sense (it seems as if one alignment was added after another without forethought given to the system). North of Shedd park it appears that it would be difficult to change them due to the density of the area, however South of Shedd park there appears to be more wiggle room. I’m not a traffic engineer so I’m not sure what is possible but let’s look at the most egregious area between Stadium Plaza and 495 as an example; there appears to be many potential ways to reduce the number of lights, intersections and crossings:

2. Make North Billerica Station Multi-modal

It is impossible to walk nor bike to North Billerica MBTA communter rail station from any direction; there are no side-walks nor bike lanes on any road that leads to the station and it is directly between two populated areas. The only way to get there is via bus or car. I believe this is a big missed opportunity that could be relatively low-lying fruit (there are no buildings right on top of the streets around there).

I suggest the project should have at least two baseline goals to get from the population and business centers to the station:

  1. The ability to walk and bike from Lawrence street in Lowell down Woburn street and to North Billerica station.
  2. The ability to walk and bike from Boston Road in Billerica to North Billerica station.

Obviously that is just a starting point and it would be ideal if more streets in that area could be made walk-able and bike-able.

3. Umass Lowell Station

Extend the commuter rail to Umass Lowell South Campus. This could be extremely low-lying fruit:

  • Tracks already exist
  • MBTA already has the right of way on these tracks (they acquired it from Pan-am Railways in a swap for Lechmere station).
  • There is already direct access to the tracks from South Campus.
  • It would not require us to wait for the full Nashua extension.
  • It would alleviate traffic at the Lord Overpass.
  • It is consistent with UML’s growth plans.

4. LRTA for Umass Lowell

I’m a Umass Lowell alumn from the 90s and I’ve always thought that UML running their own bus system was a silly duplication of transportation effort; I’m very glad that it was brought up at the meeting last night.

  • It insulates the students from the city.
  • UML’s buses had traditionally been far inferior to LRTA’s.
  • UML perpetually had accessibility issues with their buses.
  • LRTA could benefit from more ridership (more ridership = more funding).
  • One bus system is easier to understand.
  • There have been silly turf wars between LRTA and UML buses (ex: who can enter Gallagher Terminal when).
  • I’m sure LRTA could provide the service cheaper due to economies of scale.

In fact, to this day I can’t think of one reason why UML running their own buses is good for anyone. It is not good for the city. As an alum I can certainly say is not better for the students. I can’t see how it could be more efficient for the University and overall UML trying to run its own public transportation system is certainly not good for the LRTA.

This could be the lowest lying fruit of all actionable projects; it could be as simple as agreement(s) and paperwork.

I was a little disappointed at the meeting that UML thought giving students the ability to buy LRTA passes was the solution. That is indeed a good step, but the real solution is for UML to get out of the public transportation business all together and for the LRTA to step up and take on the routes.

One thought on “NMCOG Suggestions 04/08/15

  1. Paul Early says:

    Thank you for this post. I found your link at Richard Howe’s site. Your maps and illustrations are very well done and helpful. I was the one talking with the UML people about the potential for a bus service merger. I agree that just giving LRTA passes is not a real solution. UML needs a contract with LRTA guaranteeing bus performance with appropriate head ways and service, both late night and early. I believe UML may still wish to run late night shuttles.

    I am a UMass, Amherst alum and in Amherst many of the students drive buses. They have integrated service with the PVTA (Pioneer Valley Transportation Authority). I know that the university runs late night shuttles, but it seems to me that the regular hours campus buses are integrated with the PVTA’s service.

    Thank you also for your anecdotes about walking to destinations on Rte 38. I also have confronted the erratic sidewalk terminations along this route. I ride my bike along Rte 38 to Hannafords sometimes and it would be nice to have sharrows. I agree with your assessment that there are redundant lights on Rte 38, but, if they do tend to slow the cars down.

    I am also confused about the railroad ownership. Like you, I have understood that MBTA owned the right of way. It was my understanding that when the city wanted to extend a sewer pipe under the tracks near South Campus for the Marginal Street project, the city needed permission from the T. On the other hand, I frequently hear city councilors talking about dealing with Pan Am. I wonder why this is. Is it because of some arrangement between the T and Pan AM or is it ignorance on the part of officials or is it the man behind the curtain problem. In any case, I had not heard that the T acquired the tracks in a swap for Lechmere station. Do you know any of the details?


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