Boston transportation officials tonight unwrapped a proposal to make Centre Street safer through a new configuration with a single travel lane for motor vehicles in each direction, a center turn lane and dedicated bicycle lanes.
The new configuration would force drivers to slow down and make the road far safer for pedestrians to cross both by reducing speeding and by eliminating the sort of crash where one motorist stops for a pedestrian, who started to walk only to be mowed down by a car in the other travel lane, officials told a packed and divided auditorium at Holy Name School - where some people applauded the proposal as a way to make Centre Street a true neighborhood street safe for everybody to travel along, while others denounced it as a disaster that would jam intersecting side streets with cut-through traffic and an example of government overreach by officials who still fail to understand why people voted for Donald Trump.
City officials pledged to come up with a plan for making Centre Street safer after the Feb. 5 death of Marilyn Wentworth, killed at the intersection with Hastings Street as she was walking to get a cup of coffee on the other side of Centre, by a motorist who said she was blinded by the sun. Chris Osgood, the city's official chief of streets, said officials will now spend the next several months talking to residents and Centre Street business owners to come up with a final proposal this fall.
Osgood added that the city is working on more immediate projects to make the road safer, including the recent installation of flex posts at Hastings Street and the installation this summer of radar signs that flash drivers with their current speeds. BTD is also planning to tie Centre Street signals - after they're topped with cameras - to the city's central signal management system to allow easier fine tuning of traffic-light sequencing.
Charlotte Fleetwood, head of the city's Vision Zero program, which aims to reduce traffic fatalities, said that traffic studies done after that crash showed that most Centre Street motorists speed - that the average speed towards Holy Name is 30 m.p.h., or 5 m.p.h. above the city speed limit. Adding dedicated bicycle lanes along the curb would make the street safer not just for bicyclists but for pedestrians, by giving them a bit more visibility, she said.
With 16,200 vehicle trips a day, Centre Street fits federal guidelines for a three-lane road, she said.
Fleetwood said that a study by a consultant hired by the city suggested that during rush hour, motorists making the one-mile trip between Spring Street and Holy Name would see the time of their rides increase by no more than two minutes - and that outside of rush hour, they would see no change at all.
Peter Furth, a Northeastern professor who first proposed shrinking the number of lanes on Centre Street two years ago, said that eliminating one lane in each direction would not reduce the typical commute by much because the new configuration would reduce delays now caused by people making left turns or double parking.
Fleetwood said the new configuration would mean the loss of 16 of the 221 present parking spaces along Centre, but said the city would work with the MBTA to see if there were ways to eliminate some bus stops, which would reduce that number. She added part of any program would be better signs directing motorists to the more than 1,000 off-street parking spaces in both public lots and lots maintained by local businesses.
After Osgood and Fleetwood finished their presentation, local residents - and a couple of people from Roslindale and JP - gave their thoughts, almost seeming to alternate between people who demanded the city keep the current four lanes and people who liked the idea of a "road diet."
Among those strongly supporting the city proposal were Al Wentworth, Marilyn Wentworth's husband, and their son, Matt. Both, who at times struggled to speak, said the idea would simply make the road safer for pedestrians. Answering people who said the change would ruin business on Centre Street, Matt Wentworth pointed to the coffee shop his mother was going to. "They lost her business that day; she's not coming back."
The first person at the microphone, though, Marty Keogh, president of the West Roxbury Civic Improvement Association, said that while everybody agrees Centre Street is dangerous, the proposal "is not a good idea."
"I think almost everybody in this room would agree with that," he said. The statement was greeted by a loud chorus yelling "NO!" after which Keogh thanked the veterans in the hall for fighting so that he could have the First Amendment right to speak his piece about how the proposal would only slow traffic throughout the neighborhood.
He was followed by a Mt. Vernon Street resident who said he could not wait for the proposal to be put into action because he and his kids now avoid Centre Street because it's so dangerous.
Some residents seemed particularly incensed by the idea of bike lanes, saying nobody rides bikes on Centre Street.
Frank O'Brien of Mt. Vernon Street questioned why city officials were "kowtowing to special-interest groups" and trying to force bike lanes down the throats of the good citizens of West Roxbury in a plan that just encourages people to run roughshod over side streets. "You still haven't figured out how Donald Trump got elected," he said, just warming up. He proceeded to tie the Centre Street proposal to efforts by the city "to ruin us like Southie" by cramming hundreds of condos into a neighborhood of single- and two-family homes via a zoning board that "hands out variances like candy." He concluded: "We're saying enough is enough. Try it out on some neighborhood that might want it, but leave us alone!"
Bicyclists in the auditorium responded that the reason so few of them go on Centre is that it's just too dangerous. Several said they or their spouses are avid bicyclists who commute on two wheels as far as the Seaport, but that when it comes to bicycling, they avoid Centre Street like the plague and instead ride up to Roslindale or Jamaica Plain via other roads for the sort of casual shopping and dining they'd much rather do closer to home if only they could get there safely.
Jan Hanaghan, who lives on Hastings Street, and whose husband bicycles to work in the Seaport, said the road is so dangerous she has her son text her when he successfully gets across Centre on the way to pick up something to eat at the Real Deal.
Jacob Robinson, executive director of West Roxbury Main Streets, which works with businesses along the street, acknowledged that some of his members are concerned about such issues as parking and unloading of trucks, but said that other members see the proposal as an opportunity to make Centre a far more welcoming destination for shoppers and diners - drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians all. He said too many people now avoid Centre altogether.
Countering residents who pointed to their children as reasons to support the plan, Brian Kenneally pointed to his two young daughters - both of whom came with him to the meeting - as reasons to oppose it. He said he doesn't want to worry about them outside on his side street because of extra traffic sent down it by motorists trying to avoid Centre Street. He said he walked up Centre Street today and went into 32 stores and that 20 business owners agreed with him the road should stay at four lanes - and that the owners of the other 12 simply weren't there when he went in. He said it was a travesty the city had no plan to keep the four lanes and make them safer. How about repainting crosswalks and putting in more pedestrial signals, he asked.
But other side-street residents said that's already an issue and that they would rather see a safer Centre Street. Some residents, including Al Wentworth, said that one answer would be installation of more four-way stops on the residential streets off Centre.
Colby Wheeler, a Mt. Vernon Street resident who regularly bikes to Cambridge and downtown, but never goes on Centre, said, "I want to ride to Centre Street. It's dangerous. Fix it."