Nearing gridlock, Framingham may ease up on growth

Larger in population than a number of Massachusetts cities, Framingham had a housing explosion in the 1950s, became a major shopping center in the '60s, and has continued to gain business and industry. Town leaders don't want to stop growth, but they are beginning to realize it must be better controlled. In a recent special town meeting Framingham adopted proposals that give the town tighter controls on new construction projects, especially in regard to their impact on traffic.

ALL roads lead to Framingham. Or so it seems to residents here who have long complained that a seven-minute drive across town has grown in the past decade into a 25-minute ordeal.

The problem: Too many cars and too few roads to accommodate them. And with both residential and commercial construction here continuing at a rapid pace, it appears Framingham roads will be growing even more crowded in the near future.

Traffic congestion poses a multimillion-dollar problem for local officials who are looking for affordable ways to ease the near-gridlock that twice daily transforms Routes 9, 30, 126 and other converging roads into clogged bottlenecks of idling vehicles and frustrated drivers.

``People have reported seeing ambulances with their sirens on and lights flashing standing still through several changes of a traffic light,'' says Framingham Town Planning Director Frederick Taintor. The traffic congestion recently sparked one of the most divisive debates this community of 70,000 residents has witnessed. Over a period of several months, the argument over whether the town should impose a moratorium on new commercial construction in an effort to limit the number of additional cars on Framingham roads was aired in the press and other forums.

Although almost everyone in town agrees that traffic is a serious problem, there was anything but agreement on whether a moratorium would be the best solution.

``This community has for a number of years said to companies, `We want you here; we want you to come here and grow,' '' says Michelle Cunha, president of the local Chamber of Commerce. ``Then when the town says [through a moratorium], `We don't want you to grow anymore,' that is unreasonable.''

The moratorium proposal was defeated early last month at a special Framingham Town Meeting by a vote of 133 to 33. But Town Meeting members approved a compromise measure instead that requires new developers to draft traffic studies to determine what impact their projects might have on Framingham's overall traffic problem.

The proposed traffic zoning bylaw empowers the local planning board to reject applications for projects that would significantly add to local traffic problems. It also empowers the board to require developers to make necessary improvements to public roads in order to alleviate traffic problems heightened by the developer's project.

In addition, the town is drafting a revised set of planning bylaws that should give local officials more clout in dealing with developers on issues including traffic, environmental, and community impacts.

For Framingham it is a milestone.

The town, during the past 20 years of steady construction, has gained a reputation as being an easy place to build and develop. Planning and zoning bylaws have been vague or nonexistent. Sometimes it seemed to some observers here that more emphasis was being placed on keeping the tax rate low by encouraging new construction than on demanding that developers provide for the best interests of the community.

In the past two decades Framingham has received more than its share of new stores, factories, and corporate headquarters. Located in the midst of Massachusetts' fastest growing area -- the Bay State equivalent of California's Silicon Valley -- Framingham is home to several large high-technology firms, one of the country's largest shopping malls, and New England's only automotive plant.

The Framingham area, including neighboring Natick and other surrounding communities, has become New England's second-largest retail center, with annual sales exceeding $850 million. The region's largest retail center is Boston, with annual sales of some $2 billion.

Proponents of tighter planning restrictions in Framingham maintain that good planning and continued development can go hand in hand. The recent moratorium and traffic debate apparently convinced more residents of this. ``People are beginning to get concerned about planning in Framingham,'' Planning Director Taintor says.

He adds, ``In a sense it is a sign of how healthy we are that we have these problems. But it would be nice to solve them while we are in such a vibrant state so that if at some point the economy turns around we don't find ourselves at a point where we are stuck with problems that we are absolutely incapable of solving.''

Some observers here say that much of Framingham's problem is that its town meeting form of government is a cumbersome way to manage such a large community. They note that part-time board members bring to their jobs neither the necessary time nor the expertise required to solve Framingham's long-term problems. Others complain that politics, apathy, and a lack of funds because of property tax limits under Proposition 21/2 have hindered progress on the traffic issue in the past.

Among proposed solutions: a $50 million project widening Routes 9 and 30; construction of a $20 million, mile-long elevated highway above Route 9; underpasses and overpasses at key intersections, costing some $10 million; synchronized lights; more traffic policemen; staggered work hours at large local businesses; and wider use of the town's limited system of mass transit.

``The problem is that when you look at the costs that are involved you will see that they are really beyond what we can afford,'' says Taintor. One possible answer may be in examining the town's traffic congestion as a regional problem and sharing the burden of solving it with surrounding communities. Along these lines the Metropolitan Area Planning Council is just beginning a study of the Route 9 corridor, examining anew possible improvements.

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