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Lexington Center Streetscape Project

Myths and Facts

Yes, traffic lights are needed at the Woburn St intersection.

No, this project is not a conspiracy to demolish, destroy, and Disney-fy Lexington Center.

Read on below for details...


Myth: Communications about the Lexington Center Streetscape Project have been poor. I didn’t know about it and haven’t had a chance to express my views to Town officials and representatives.

Read the Facts...

Facts: Let’s stipulate that the closest thing Lexington has to a newspaper of record is the Lexington Minuteman. From June 2, 2011, through April 28, 2016, the Minuteman has published 58 articles and notices about the Center Streetscape Project.

  • Fourteen articles were published in 2011
  • Two were published in 2012
  • One was published in 2013
  • Six were published in 2014
  • Eighteen were published in 2015
  • Seventeen were published in 2016 (as of April 28)

Eleven articles appeared on the front page. In addition, the Minuteman has published dozens of letters to the editor on the subject. All told, it’s probably safe to say that there were at least 100 mentions of the Center Streetscape Project in the Lexington Minuteman in the past five years.

Beyond the newspaper, the Project has been discussed on social media and on local email lists for quite some time. In addition, the League of Women Voters spearheaded a large community input effort at the inception of the project, co-sponsoring an architect-led exercise attended by well more than a hundred citizens. And the Town has hosted numerous, well-attended public meetings about the Project since 2011. This timeline demonstrates the transparent, open, and well-publicized process by which the Center Streetscape Project has developed and continues to develop.

Our point is not to criticize anyone for not knowing about the Center Streetscape Project. It’s hard to keep track of everything in our busy, fast-paced world. But, based on this record, it seems unfair to fault the Town’s communication efforts.

Anyway - the public process continues, and there is still time to make your views known! Contact the Board of Selectmen at selectmen@lexingtonma.gov.

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Myth: The Board of Selectmen shut down all public discussion of the Center Streetscape Project in November of 2015 and is excluding certain parties from participating in the process.

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Facts: No and no. Public discussion continues, and no one is being excluded.

Over the past five years, the Town and the Selectmen have welcomed and received public input on all aspects of the Center Streetscape Project, from traffic engineering to (non-traffic) design elements, and continue to do so.

Since the Town started specifically planning for the Center Streetscape Project in 2011, more than 50 meetings involving Town staff and citizen-staffed stakeholder committees have taken place. Most recently, broad public input and participation was welcomed at the following meetings:

  • April 7, 2016 (Public Meeting in Diamond School auditorium attended by 30 or so residents - Topic: Field Test Traffic Safety Plan)
  • January 12, 2016 (Public Meeting in Battin Hall, Cary Memorial Building, attended by 100-200 residents - Topic: Proposals for non-traffic design elements)
  • November 30, 2015 (Selectmen’s Meeting - Topic: Woburn St intersection)
  • June 10, 2015 (Public Meeting in Clarke School auditorium, attended by ~200 residents - Topic: Woburn St intersection)
  • March 18, 2014 (Public Meeting in Battin Hall, Cary Memorial Building - Topic: Proposals for non-traffic design elements)
  • December 5, 2013 (Public Meeting at St Brigid’s Church, very well attended civic engagement meeting, with presentations and break-out sessions - Topic: Visioning of traffic and non-traffic design elements)
  • Four public hearings / workshops held in 2011 (December, October, July, May) led by Pressley Associates, an award-winning design firm specializing in historic landscapes.

Notably, the March 18, 2014, and the January 12, 2016, meetings sought public feedback on the non-traffic design elements of the Streetscape project. In addition, on November 17, 2015, the Historic District Commission and the Lexington Historical Commission received a project update and offered feedback.

The public has ongoing opportunities to comment on the Center Streetscape Project. The public is always invited to contact the Board of Selectmen and to visit individual selectmen during their office hours. And members of the public are welcome to speak at the start of every regularly scheduled Board meeting during the public comment period for items not on the Selectmen’s agenda.

The Selectmen have created a Center Streetscape Design Review ad hoc Committee, which will make recommendations to the Board on sidewalks, street lighting style, buffers, seating, bike amenities, informational signage, trash & recycling receptacles, planters, landscaping, educational & interpretive elements, and maintenance & upkeep.

The ad hoc committee includes Center business owners, as well as professional landscape architects and designers, and is made up of representatives from the Bicycle Advisory Committee, Center Committee, Commission on Disability, Design Advisory Committee, Historic District Commission, Planning Board, Tourism Committee, Tree Committee.

In a letter to the Lexington Minuteman, the Board of Selectmen unanimously debunked this myth and wrote, “We look forward to continuing this open process and for all residents to feel engaged and free to express their perspectives on a revitalized Lexington Center.”

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Myth: The development of the design for the Center Streetscape Project was poorly done. We should scrap it and start all over again.

Read the Facts...

Facts: If one reviews the project to date, it would be difficult to come to this conclusion. Consider:

  • The Project has been designed with great care and thought, with direction and guidance by professional landscape architects and traffic engineers, and with considerable community input.
  • Hundreds of hours of citizen, committee, and town staff time have gone into it, as have hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money.
  • It has been more than five years in the making.

This summary of the making of the Center Streetscape Project gives some sense of why it would be ridiculous to start over (check out this timeline for more details):

  • 2003. The Comprehensive Plan for Lexington identified the Woburn St / Mass Ave intersection as requiring changes in layout and traffic control.
  • 2006-2009. Each year, the Town repaired various stretches of sidewalks in Lexington Center.
  • 2010. The Town developed a master sidewalk plan for Lexington Center. Later in the year, a study revealed that the Mass Ave roadway in Lexington Center was in poor condition.
  • 2011. Recognizing the need to address the infrastructure issues in Lexington Center in a coherent and comprehensive way, the Town engaged in a public bidding process and hired Pressley Associates, a design firm specializing in historic landscapes, to develop concept plans. Several public charrettes and public meetings were held during the course of the year, culminating in a forty-seven page concept plan.

    Key aspects of the plan that have been incorporated into the Center Streetscape Project are:
    • Bump-outs and shorter crosswalks, ADA-compliant ramps, ADA-compliant sidewalks for improved pedestrian safety
    • Movement of crosswalks to safer locations (see slide 8 of the concept plan)
    • Additional seating opportunities and site improvements on the north-side sidewalk
    • Cohesive treatment of sidewalk paving, furniture, and roadway and pedestrian lighting throughout the Center
    • New planters and trees
    • New bike racks and bike accommodations
    • Traffic flow improvements
    • A more comprehensible Woburn St gateway
    • Improved parking
  • 2012-2013. With the basic concept established, it was time to bring in traffic engineers. The Town engaged in a public bidding process and hired BETA Group, which had the capacity to do both the traffic study work and also the landscape architecture work.
  • 2013-2015. BETA Group conducted the necessary traffic studies and modeling, and also engaged in numerous public charrettes and public meetings, getting much of the same feedback that Pressley Associates had gotten. The Board of Selectmen received and approved BETA’s plan at the 25% design phase. This phase contained the basic traffic engineering and public safety outline of the Center Streetscape Project.
  • 2016. BETA Group unveiled a landscape design proposal for the Center. The Board of Selectmen appointed a Center Streetscape Design Review ad hoc Committee to tweak and refine BETA’s proposal. That process is ongoing.

The Center Streeetscape Project is a good and urgently needed plan that keeps the best of Lexington Center, makes important improvements, and refreshes the landscape. To scrap it all and start over would be outrageously dismissive and wasteful.

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Myth: The Selectmen and the Town are seeking approval of construction funds for the Center Streetscape Project with no regard to the quality of the final design.

Read the Facts...

Facts: Nothing could be further from the truth.

In 2011, the idea for the Center Streetscape Project grew out of the convergence of three important issues:

  • The need to repair the broken, unsafe sidewalks of Lexington Center
  • The need to rebuild the failed roadway infrastructure
  • The need to make the Center safer for pedestrians and cyclists

In 2011, the Town contracted with Pressley Associates, an award-winning design firm specializing in historic landscapes, to develop concept plans for the Center Streetscape. The resulting concept plan was the culmination of a year of public outreach involving ten boards and committees, a League of Women Voters First Friday Forum, four public information-gathering workshops, and two formal presentations to the Board of Selectmen.

Since 2011, the Town’s traffic engineers, together with the traffic engineering / landscape design firm Beta Group, have been planning the basic traffic and safety outline of the Project.

The concept plan that was publicly, transparently, and professionally developed in 2011 continues to inform the design of the Project. To finalize the details of the design, the Board of Selectmen has appointed a Center Streetscape Design ad hoc Committee. This committee will be holding two public hearings. In addition, there will continue to be ample opportunity for community input, as there has been since this project was in its conceptual stages in 2011.

Clearly, the Board of Selectmen has been intensely concerned with the quality of the final design from day one.

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Myth: The Center Streetscape Project will “demolish,” “destroy,” and “Disney-fy” Lexington Center.

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Facts: These breathless claims are totally unwarranted. Let’s first acknowledge this: If any demolition of Lexington Center is going on, it is most accurately described as demolition by the ravages of time. The Mass Ave roadbed is failing to its core - beyond its repavable life - and much of the sidewalk area is uneven, chipped, heaved, and crumbling. Plus, safety and accessibility issues abound. The point of the Center Streetscape Project is to correct these failings and stop the neglect of our lovely downtown.

In 2011, through an open, transparent, public process, a concept plan for Lexington Center was developed with substantial citizen and professional input under the leadership of Pressley Associates, an award-winning design firm specializing in historic landscapes. That plan continues to inform the project at the current 25% design phase and in the public process that is bringing the Project forward to 100% design.

The Center Streetscape Design Review Ad Hoc Committee appointed in 2016 to address the final design elements for the Project, will be making recommendations to the Board of Selectmen on the following:

  • Choices of street-lighting posts
  • Trees and plantings
  • Amenities like benches, tables, and chairs
  • Materials for sidewalks, edging, and visual unification elements
  • Historical interpretive elements

The committee consists of representatives from the following Town committees, including professional architects:

  • Center Committee
  • Design Advisory Committee
  • Commission on Disability
  • Historic Districts Commission
  • Historical Commission
  • Planning Board
  • Tourism Committee
  • Tree Committee
  • Bicycle Committee

The Committee will be seeking public input on its proposals. There is no need to panic. The Center Streetscape Project is progressing as it has been from the start: holistically, publicly, and transparently, with real respect for Lexington Center and its importance for our quality of life.

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Myth: The Center Streetscape Project will cut down all the trees in Lexington Center.

Read the Facts...

Facts: From the very start, every rendering of the Center Streetscape Project has included trees as central elements to the design proposals. Shade and canopy are essential elements of any town center that means to draw shoppers and diners. It is important to realize that most of the trees in Lexington Center are unhealthy and many are dying. The Center Streetscape Project will replace dying trees and any that are inadvertently injured during construction. This is an opportunity for our community to prepare tree pits that are more conducive to healthy growth than the ones that currently exist, and to choose trees that are less likely to attract birds that befoul benches, that grow in a way that lets the signs of our merchants be visible to the public, and that will keep our Center comfortable and inviting.

Mass Ave at Grant Street Looking West - Proposed

Trees have always been part of the Center Streetscape Project. This image is from the December 6, 2011, concept plans.

Commercial Area

Notice the trees along the central business streetscape of Lexington Center. This image is from the January, 2016.

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Myth: The Woburn St / Mass Ave intersection isn’t even in the top ten most dangerous intersections in Lexington. There’s no reason to reconfigure it and put in traffic lights.

Read the Facts...

Facts: Based on the most reliable official data for the years 2002-2013, the Woburn St / Mass Ave intersection certainly is one of the top ten most dangerous intersections. In fact, it tops the list for injury crashes, and is fifth in overall crashes. And 2014 data from the Lexington Police Department shows a significant increase in crashes at that intersection.

Woburn St / Mass Ave is #1 in motorists hitting pedestrians or cyclists.

Crashes between motorists and pedestrians or bicyclists

From 2002-2013, the Woburn St / Mass Ave intersection had more crashes involving non-motorists than any of the top ten most dangerous intersections in Lexington. Sources: Lexington Minuteman, Mass DOT Crash Portal.

Woburn St / Mass Ave is #1 in motorists injuring pedestrians or bicyclists.

Injuries from motorist crashes with pedestrians and bicycles

From 2002-2013, the Woburn St / Mass Ave intersection had more injuries to non-motorists than any of the top ten most dangerous intersections in Lexington. Sources: Lexington Minuteman, Mass DOT Crash Portal.

Woburn St / Mass Ave is #5 in total motor vehicle crashes.

Total crashes per intersection

From 2002-2013, the Woburn St / Mass Ave intersection ranked #5 in the number of crashes compared with the top ten most dangerous intersections in Lexington. Sources: Lexington Minuteman, Mass DOT Crash Portal.

Woburn St / Mass Ave is #5 in total motor vehicle crashes resulting in motorist or non-motorist injury.

Total injuries per intersection

From 2002-2013, the Woburn St / Mass Ave intersection ranked #5 in the number of crashes resulting in injuries compared with the top ten most dangerous intersections in Lexington. Sources: Lexington Minuteman, Mass DOT Crash Portal.

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Myth: We should try low-tech solutions first.

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Facts: This sounds good until you look more carefully at the low-tech solutions being suggested.

  1. Lower the speed limit to 20 mph. That’s school-zone speed. On Mass Ave, that speed is impractical to the point of inviting scofflaws. There is also a legal issue: The Town of Lexington cannot, by law, unilaterally set speed limits. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation establishes speed limits. This limit is set by conducting extensive traffic studies, determining how fast drivers typically travel on the road in question, and then setting the limit at 85th percentile speed. This is the speed exceeded by only 15% of traffic. At many locations, this would result in the speed limits being reset higher than their current limit.

    The Municipal Modernization Bill (enacted in August 2016) grants towns more latitude in setting local speed limits. It is currently unclear how that law applies to Lexington Center. It is worth noting that the speed limit in Lexington Center is 25 MPH.
  2. Use a flag system at crosswalks. Been there, done that. Several years ago, after a fatality in the area, the East Mass Ave neighborhood set up a flag system at crosswalks. A walker was supposed to pick up a green flag from a container and wave it at the traffic so that cars would obey the pedestrian crosswalk law. Here is what happened:
    1. Four to six cars would speed by before one actually stopped.
    2. The flags were constantly being vandalized or stolen.
    3. Flags would bunch up on one side of the street, leaving crossers on the other side with nothing to wave.
  3. Deploy traffic officers at rush hour. But there are problems here, too:
    1. It unnecessarily puts police officers in danger. The expense associated with redesigning and rebuilding the intersection would still be needed to create a safer and visible location for an officer to stand.
    2. It doesn’t address all the other times of day when traffic becomes relatively heavy.
    3. Pedestrians will have no protection except at rush hour.
    4. Crashes that result in injuries to non-motorists occur at all times of day, not just rush hour. (Source: Mass DOT Crash Portal.)
  4. Place raised pedestrian crossings along Mass Ave to calm traffic. Again, this one’s a no-go. Mass Ave is classified as an “Urban Principal Arterial (State Numbered Route).” Use of raised crosswalks is not allowed. Raised crosswalks on Mass Ave are not available to us as a way to calm traffic.

    Moreover, according to Lt. Mark Ferreira of the Lexington Fire Department, “Massachusetts Av is the main route that the Fire Department uses to get to almost every part of town. [P]lacing raised crosswalks along this route would significantly affect our response time to emergencies. I understand the need for some type of increased safety measures along this route, but raised crosswalks would have a very big impact on public safety response.”

For real solutions to real traffic problems on Mass Ave, low-tech solutions are clearly impractical.

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Myth: Lexington is suddenly on a fast track to install traffic lights at four Massachusetts Avenue intersections: Pleasant Street, Maple Street, Marrett Road / 2A, and Woburn Street.

Read the Facts...

Facts: Fast track? These plans have been under study, analysis, and development for more than a decade.

The 2003 Comprehensive Plan for Lexington, a town-wide analysis of traffic patterns, identified these intersections as among Lexington’s top ten problem intersections and recommended changes in both layout and in traffic control, including the use of traffic signals.

Work on the East Mass Ave Roadway Improvements Project, which targets the Mass Ave intersections at Pleasant St, Maple St, and Marrett Rd, began in earnest eight years ago, in 2008, in response to citizen outcry about pedestrian safety when a woman crossing Mass Ave near Follen Church was killed.

The process of conceptualizing the Center Streetscape, which was led by landscape architects with substantial public input, started in 2011. That was five years ago. The plan continues to develop. Far from being fast-tracked, the Town is moving the Center Streetscape Project along with great care and diligence, openly and transparently.

The charge that the Center and the East Mass Ave projects are being rushed is false.

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Myth: Traffic signals will cause significant cut-through traffic in neighborhoods. Therefore, case closed.

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Facts: Not so fast.

An independent traffic engineering firm was hired by the Town to study the impact of traffic signals on neighborhoods north and south of the Woburn St intersection. They found that:

  • There is the potential for an increase in cut-through traffic.
  • Drivers currently speed on Winthrop Rd and will continue to do so even after the intersection is changed and traffic lights installed.
  • There are too many crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists happening at the bike path crossing on Woburn St. (Crash counts at the Woburn St intersection do not include crash counts at the bike path crossing.)

The engineers suggested a number of potential traffic mitigation measures, including:

  • Limiting the amount of traffic signal “green” time for drivers crossing Woburn St to Winthrop Rd
  • Additional signage
  • Speed tables on the side streets
  • Road closures/turn restrictions/time restrictions
  • Curb extensions/chicanes
  • Pedestrian accommodations

The Town will develop traffic mitigation plans with input from neighborhood residents. Mitigation funding will be incorporated into the Streetscape budget before this phase of the project comes before Town Meeting.

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Myth: Traffic lights at the Woburn St / Mass Ave intersection will cause backups on Mass Ave.

Read the Facts...

Facts: The Woburn St intersection is currently designed to optimize one thing only: an uninterrupted stream of traffic down Mass Ave and into the Center. The intersection speeds Mass Ave traffic into our Center while ignoring frustrating backups on Woburn St.

With the new recommended design, as needed traffic signal changes will:

  • give a fair shake to drivers entering from Woburn St, Fletcher Ave and Winthrop Rd.
  • turn this virtually uncrossable intersection into a safe eastern entrance to Lexington Center and make it a welcoming and convenient way to walk to the Farmers' Market, Town Offices, and stores on the north side of Mass Ave.
  • dramatically improve safety and usability for pedestrians, bicyclists, and people with disabilities.

There is no evidence that traffic lights will cause undue backups on Mass Ave. What the lights will do is slow down the 23,000 vehicles that pass through that intersection on a typical day and give Lexington a saner, safer main street.

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Myth: The crash rate at the Woburn St / Mass Ave intersection is low and has been decreasing.

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Facts: The truth is that the number of crashes at this intersection varies year by year and you can make claims about rising or falling crash rates depending on the interval you choose.

  • The average crash rate between 2002 and 2013 was 6.7. But 2014 showed a spike in crashes and injuries. There were ten crashes that year. Five people were injured, three of them seriously. 2015 showed nine crashes and no injuries.
  • But there’s no arguing this: The Woburn St intersection is a hotspot for crashes in Lexington Center. And the injury rate for pedestrians and cyclists is almost double the rate at the Center’s one signaled intersection at Waltham St.

Sources: Massachusetts Department of Transportation crash portal., Lexington Police Department

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Myth: Traffic lights will mar our historic Battle Road and diminish the feeling of the eastern gateway into our town.

Read the Facts...

Facts:

  • Actually, our Battle Road is marred by dysfunctional intersections with backed-up traffic, dangerous pedestrian crossings, and frustrated local residents who have been waiting years for relief.
  • No one is talking about putting traffic lights on the Battle Green, or in front of the Minuteman statue, or at Tower Park, or near any other cherished landmarks or historic vistas.
  • Even the Battle Road Scenic Byway Committee has endorsed the recommended plans, which include traffic lights.
  • The aesthetics of an intersection come from the buildings, the greenery, the open space, choice of traffic light style and other features. See these lovely examples from nearby historic towns, all of which have traffic lights.
Stoneham

West Acton Center Intersection. Click to enlarge.


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Wayland

Wayland Historic District. Click to enlarge.

Wellesley

Wellesley Intersection. Click to enlarge.

Stoneham

Stoneham Intersection. Click to enlarge.

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Myth: Project goals can be achieved without traffic lights at Woburn St.

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Facts: The goals of the Center Streetscape project include improving pedestrian access and bike safety and reducing traffic delay times on Woburn St.

Our Town engineers as well as consultant traffic engineers have thoroughly examined many solutions for the Woburn St intersection. Here are their official conclusions to date:

  • The goals of pedestrian access, bicycle safety, crash reduction, and fair integration of cars entering Mass Ave cannot be achieved without traffic lights.
  • Changing the intersection geometry but excluding the traffic light will leave bike lanes and crosswalks unprotected and will make Woburn St traffic backups even worse than they are now.
  • Any roundabout would work very poorly for pedestrians and bicycles, encroach on abutting homes, require considerable taking of private property, and reduce the Farmers' Market green space by 11,700 square feet. The hilly topography would demand an enormous, expensive grading effort.
  • Separate pedestrian crossing light options do not meet state highway standards and regulations and are not allowed at this intersection.
  • Reducing the speed limit in the Center to 20 MPH as we do for school zones is not allowed under state law, and enforcement would be extremely difficult to achieve.

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Myth: There is no point in rebuilding the Woburn St / Mass Ave intersection to make it safer for pedestrians because no one wants to walk across there anyway.

Read the Facts...

Facts: If no one wanted to cross there, there would be no one getting hit by cars there! But the fact is that there are more non-motorist crash injuries at the Woburn Street intersection than at any other intersection in Lexington.

Compare just these three intersections for the years 2002-2013:

  • Harrington Rd / Bedford St:
    • Of the 210 crashes there, three have involved injuries to non-motorists. (1.4%)
  • Waltham St / Mass Ave - the Center’s only signalized intersection:
    • Of the 56 crashes there, three involved injuries to non-motorists. (5.4%)
  • Woburn St / Mass Ave:
    • Of the 80 crashes there, eight involved injuries to non-motorists. (10%)
    • This intersection has a far higher injury crash rate for non-motorists than even Harrington / Bedford, which is the intersection with the most overall crashes.

(Source: Massachusetts Department of Transportation crash portal)

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Myth: Traffic lights at the Woburn St / Mass Ave intersection will cost millions of dollars.

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Facts: Traffic lights will cost in the vicinity of $200,000, just under 10% of the cost of the Woburn St portion of Center Streetscape Project ($2,700,000) that was requested at the 2015 Town Meeting, and just 2½% of the anticipated cost of the entire Center Streetscape Project. And remember: the major cost of that intersection is rebuilding the roadway, which has to be done anyway.

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Friends of the Lexington Center Streetscape Project | Lexington, MA