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Compromise plan shows promise for road repairs

October 31, 2013

After significant debate and a close vote at last week’s Fall Town Meeting that indicated an overall lack of enthusiasm for putting all of next year’s Chapter 90 road repair funds toward downtown reconstruction, Walpole Selectmen moved Tuesday evening toward a compromise plan that would continue residential road repairs and also make meaningful improvements to downtown over the next three years.

Selectmen held a workshop Tuesday with the Finance Committee and Capital Budget Committee to discuss what to do with FY 2014 Chapter 90 funds.

In August, Selectmen indicated an interest in putting all or most of next year’s money – more than $750,000, and potentially even more depending on state appropriations – toward various downtown improvements. That meant the town would suspend residential street re-pavings under its pavement management program for at least a year.

The Board said they would consult the Finance Committee and accept input from the public before making a final decision. Under the town charter, Selectmen are considered the road commissioners of the town and are the only group allowed to make a final decision on the use of the money.

But even though Selectmen control the use of the funds, Town Meeting must vote to accept them in the first place. That set up an interesting showdown at last week’s Town Meeting when RTM Joe Moraski offered a substitute motion that, if passed, would have accepted the state road funds only if Selectmen opted to put it all toward neighborhood re-pavings. After extensive discussion, Town Meeting rejected the motion by a margin of 54 to 50.

The razor-thin margin might have been enough to signal to town officials that the downtown project did not have wide support. Meanwhile, some town residents, including Hitching Post Drive resident Donna Donnellan, have been pushing Selectmen to focus on badly-needed residential street repairs rather than on downtown. Donnellan, in particular, has been fighting for more than six years to have her street and Bucket Mill Lane resurfaced. Although those streets are not included on the pavement management plan for next year, Donnellan feared that a downtown project would further delay the neighborhood improvements.

Hitching Post and Bucket Mill were both made more than 25 years ago of “experimental concrete,” in a failed attempt to see if concrete would hold up better than regular road asphalt. They are the only two streets in town that are made of that material, and both are currently in significant disrepair.

Donnellan pointed out in a letter to Selectmen this week that in 2005, the Town Administrator promised her, in writing, that her street would be repaved by 2010. Yet neither Hitching Post nor Bucket Mill have been repaved yet.

Selectmen did not take a formal vote Tuesday on any definitive plan, but indicated that in the compromise proposal they will continue to use Chapter 90 funds for at least the next two fiscal years only for the pavement management plan. Selectmen also said they would support funding full reconstruction of the Hitching Post Drive neighborhood in FY 2016 (the summer of 2015) at a cost of $500,000 – all of it funded from borrowing.

Selectmen also plan to put about $950,000 $850,000 over three two years toward downtown, most of which would be funded from free cash rather than state funds. The town would allocate $350,000 in FY 2014, and $250,000 in FY 2015, toward downtown. Both years, that money would come from the town’s free cash, not Chapter 90 funds. In FY 2016, the town would complete phase three of the project with $350,000 from either free cash or Chapter 90.

Among the planned downtown improvements are new sidewalks, raised granite curbs, the removal of brick pavers, new handicapped ramps, new aprons, new crosswalks, and new asphalt.

Despite his past opposition to the downtown project, Moraski told 180 yesterday that he is satisfied with the new approach Selectmen are taking.

RTM Eric Hurwitz, who operates the popular travel blog VisitingNewEngland.com, and has unique insight into New England business districts and downtown areas from his work on that website, told 180 this week that he thinks downtown isn’t as bad as town officials might be making it out to be. The most critical downtown priorities should be implementing alternative traffic patterns and making improvements to sidewalks, he argued.

“I regard Walpole as having one of the better downtown districts for a mid-sized town in the Boston area.” Hurwitz said. “Other than Melrose, North Attleboro, Natick, Needham and Norwood, I’d personally place Walpole right near the top for mid-sized town downtown districts in non-vacation towns,” he said.

“With some responsible, visionary spending for improvements – and without compromising the essential needs for the rest of the town – I believe downtown Walpole could be headed for gem status,” Hurwitz said.

Hurwitz appears to have gotten his wish with the compromise plan presented Tuesday.

Selectmen will take a final vote on Chapter 90 funds before the end of the year.

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