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News & Notes

→ Regional bike path would include Fall River, Cape Cod [South Coast Today]

Thus was born the SouthCoast Regional Bikeway Summit, a Feb. 15 event that will gather representatives from this region and others to discuss creating a regional bikeway. Sponsored by Mass in Motion, Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District, UMass Dartmouth and the Council on Sustainability, the summit will begin at 12:30 p.m. at the Advanced Technology & Manufacturing Center in Fall River.

On the table that day will be a vision to create a bike trail network that extends from Swansea to Wareham and north to Taunton and Mansfield, ultimately connecting with paths in Rhode Island and on Cape Cod.

“From Providence to Provincetown, that’s the way we sort of coin it,” said [Mass in Motion coordinator Pauline C.] Hamel. “And we’re not just talking about biking. These are intermodal pathways for walking, pushing strollers, wheelchairs — there’s a lot more to it.”

→ European Urbanism: Lessons from a City without Suburbs [Planetizen]

While searching for policies and levers to stem new or to retrofit existing suburbs, it might also be instructive to look for precedents, real examples of a city as it would be on arrival at the “end of the suburban project”. Precedents not only would lure planners and people by the power of their images but could also become practical guides. A contemporary precedent, were it to be found, would have great convincing power since it would have dealt with the modern issues of mobility, accessibility and commerce.

Reassuringly, at least one such city does exist: one that has reformed its suburbs to the point where they are indistinguishable from the mother “city” – Athens, Greece. This article looks at this example, attempts to draw lessons and raises disquieting questions.

→ New evidence cities rule and suburbs drool [Grist]

Suck it, Thoreau: Looks like big cities are the way to go if you’re looking to lower your environmental impact. According to a new study published in the journal Environment and Urbanization, carbon emissions in cities are lower than in the car-dependent burbs.

→ R.I. DOT leaves highway logo fee discussion to legislature [Providence Business News]

After facing fierce opposition from business owners, the R.I. Department of Transportation has backed down from a plan to charge businesses whose logos appear on informational signs along the state’s highways.

→ Community celebrates arts center [Brown Daily Herald]

About 350 attendees explored the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts at its dedication ceremony last night, taking in the wide variety of student artwork — incorporating visual art, sound, video, dance and sculpture — that adorns the latest addition to the campus.
The building — which has been open for classes since Jan. 26 — will not be host to any one department, but will “manifest new modes of dialogue between different disciplines,” said Richard Fishman P’89, director of the Creative Arts Council and a professor of visual art, who has championed the building since long before it existed.

Shameless Plug: Please feel free to nominate us as Best Blog in the Phoenix’s Best of 2011. You could also ask your friends, your mom, and your cat to nominate us if you like.

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Robert Billington: Bringing the Blackstone Valley Bikeway to its completion

Photo (cc) cho_kettie

The following is by Robert Billington, Ed.D, President of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council.

January 20, 2011

Let’s face it; Rhode Island’s bikeways bring lots of enjoyment to our residents. From South County to the Blackstone Valley, these paths connect our neighborhoods, improve our economy and draw visitors to explore our communities. They are safe, enjoyable and provide a stress-free place to relax and exercise. Everyone who experiences them wants to see not only more paths but improved connectivity between paths. We have the opportunity to do this.

While there are other bike paths in the state, what makes the Blackstone River bikeway special is the industrious American story it tells. Over 30 years ago, planning began on the Blackstone River bikeway — a bold idea for its time. Restoring dirty land along the oldest polluted river in the hemisphere, the river that launched America to super-power status, took great imagination, and guts. Ten years ago, the first few miles of the bikeway opened in Lincoln. Now with 11 miles of the Bikeway constructed, accessibility to the Blackstone River and Canal is now easy and enjoyable for fishing, canoeing and cross-country skiing. Our state has successfully transformed land that was once a dump to land that is transforming people and reconnecting them to nature.

While we have made considerable progress, we are not done. The completed section of the bikeway passes along the Blackstone River through Cumberland, Lincoln and Woonsocket. As wonderful as the completed section is, a significant amount of work has to be done in order to connect the Blackstone Valley bikeway to both the East Bay bike path and to the Massachusetts border. Despite the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s work to plan and construct the bikeway, its completion is elusive. The reason is funding.

We have worked with Rhode Island Department of Transportation officials to determine a completion date for the Bikeway and the amount of funding necessary. As of right now, it is projected that completion could take place in seven years if we continue to work hard and as long as the $31 million needed for construction is secured. To make the completion of the Blackstone Bikeway by 2017 a reality, residents, governmental leaders, community groups and organizations need to take responsibility to find the funds to complete the Blackstone Bikeway.

To date, we have 11 of the less-expensive miles of the Bikeway completed. Additionally, we have $1 million of the $31 million needed to fund the more-expensive miles ahead. We must not wait and assume that someone else will step forward and secure the funding to complete the rest of the Bikeway. We have done this for too long. It is time to stay focused and bring the project to full completion. While cutting through the dense riverfront of Central Falls, Pawtucket, East Providence, Providence, Woonsocket and North Smithfield is going to be difficult, the completion of the bikeway is within our grasp. We need to urge its completion to every local, state and federal official asking them to help us find the construction funds to build. This is a call to action to get involved and continue to remind our officials to push for the completion of the Blackstone Bikeway by 2017.

Even with the State’s growing budget deficit, we must not waiver from completing the Blackstone Bikeway. Our state has many priorities for recreational spending and we realize that the Blackstone River Bikeway is just one of them. However, this one has been on the agenda for over three decades. It is time that the completion is moved to the top of the list. Don’t think of the bikeway as simply being a place of recreation. With gas prices steadily increasing, it provides Rhode Islanders with a way to bike to work, shop for groceries and travel. The Blackstone River Bikeway is quickly becoming the new Main Street in the Blackstone Valley. The economic, environmental and health benefits from using the Bikeway cannot be overstated.

Residents, businesses, federal, state, and local officials, and community groups have to work to complete the Blackstone Valley Bikeway. It is time for the Blackstone Valley Bikeway to be completed. 2017 has to be the date! Push for progress: Cycleblackstone.com.

Robert Billington, Ed.D, President
Blackstone Valley Tourism Council

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News & Notes

→ Mass. Senate approves bill licensing 3 casinos [ProJo]
The bill includes an ammendment allowing Fall River to develop a casino on 300 acres of land at the northern edge of the city. Here in Rhode Island, Gordon Fox is making noise about calling back the Assembly to override the Governor’s veto of a casino ballot question.

→ Ximedica to expand HQ by 23,000 sq. ft. [PBN]

→ US Bicycle Route System begins connecting America [USDOT FastLane Blog]

→ Watery Future for the City of Light [New York Times]
French President and Paris Mayor at odds over closing 1.2 miles of expressway along the banks of the River Seine.

→ Readying Streetcar Plans, Cincinnati Considers Reducing Parking Requirements [The TransportPolitic]
“Cincinnati is thinking seriously about how to make its proposed streetcar system a vital element of a growing downtown, not simply a trophy piece to parade around in demonstration of its progress. The city’s Planning Commission has taken a major step in that direction by signaling its support last week to significantly reducing parking requirements in areas within two blocks of future streetcar stops.”

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News & Notes

→ Mass. buys more South Coast rail tracks [PBN]
Gov. Patrick pledges to have rail service running between New Bedford/Fall River and Boston by 2016.

The UnCaucus schedules a series of one-on-one coffees with the mayoral candidates

Northeast Corridor High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Planning
Eleven Northeast states from Maine to Maryland, with close support from Amtrak and the Coalition of Northeastern Governors (CONEG), submitted a multi-state proposal requesting that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) lead a planning effort to further define the role that intercity and high-speed passenger rail can play in helping improve the region’s transportation network, expand capacity, relieve highway and aviation congestion, and stimulate sustainable economic growth along the Northeast Corridor (NEC).

→ Spotlight on the World Cup: Transit in Durban and Pretoria [The City Fix]

→ New report shows biking and walking gains [The Fast Lane Blog]

→ What Would It Take to Fully Invest in the Northeast Corridor? [The Transport Politic]

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Stimulating


Photo (cc) Daniel Case

RIDOT is getting $1.2 million from the stimulus to study a third track at Kingston Station. The third track would provide a siding, allowing MBTA commuter rail trains to serve the station while highspeed Acela trains are able to move through without stopping.

However, though we are getting stimulus love for Kingston Station, New England gets the shaft on the $8 billion federal high speed rail stimulus porgram. New England is getting under $200 million dollars or about 2% of the total funds.

Massachusetts really lost out, no money for New Bedford/Fall River commuter rail, no money for the “inland route” which would have upgrade tracks between Boston and Springfield and improved service on the Worcester commuter rail line, and no money for the $1.9 billion north/south rail link in Downtown Boston (that last one is no surprise, no one wants to open the PR pandora’s box of spending more federal money in the Central Artery corridor post-Big Dig).

New England did get money to move forward on improvements in the New Haven – Hartford – Springfield – Vermont corridor, and to expand Amtrak’s Downeaster service north from Portland to Brunswick, Maine.

New England receives 2 percent of high-speed rail funds [Boston.com]
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The Globe rides the T

The Boston Globe takes a look at the MBTA and it’s myriad array of service modes from bus to trolley to commuter rail to boat and more, and concludes that in part, this complexity contributes to high costs. As part of this report, there is a multimedia section looking at all the various modes. Reporter Noah Bierman and videographer Scott LaPierre travel in one day on each mode of the T (commuter rail, trackless trolley, red line, Mattapan trolley, bus, orange line, green line, blue line, silver line, and commuter boat).

The complexity of the system is not the only factor driving costs on the T. The cost of living, and as a result the cost of labor, hits the T’s bottom line as well. Probably the biggest issue affecting the T’s budget is it’s crippling $8 billion debt which is keeping it from fully attacking a massive backlog of needed maintenance and modernizations.

The lack of money to replace aging equipment, a national problem for older rail systems, also increases operating costs because it forces the T to spend more money on overtime and stopgap repairs, according to people inside and outside the T who have examined its problems.

MBTA managers are quick to point out that the financial data can be read many different ways with varying results of the efficiency of the T. For instance, T expenses often calculate as being higher per mile than other agencies, however the T is often carrying far more passengers on those miles equating to a lower cost per passenger. Looking at the financials outlined in the multimedia piece, the T’s rail lines all have a lower cost per passenger than the base fare. A separate report breaks it down.

It costs the T about $12 for every mile a subway train travels, the fifth costliest among the nation’s 15 similar rail systems. But because those expenses are spread among so many passengers at the T, it costs $1.82 to carry each passenger, the third least expensive system in that regard, according to the most recently available national data from 2007 budgets.

What is interesting when looking at the T versus RIPTA, is that the T is funded largely by sales taxes whereas RIPTA is funded largely by gas taxes. Of course when driving patterns change (such as when gas hits $4/gallon) the gas tax revenue goes down, just when demand is rising.

On his daylong journey, Noah Bierman interviewed many passengers and found they support and depend on the T.

Passengers interviewed along the route, though diverse in income and education level, echoed a common refrain: They depend on the T and need the state to invest in it. They were generally tolerant of its flaws, and many said they were grateful for its performance.

What we need is a diversity of Rhode Islanders to begin to feel similarly about public transportation.

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T to vote on RI rail link

mbta_commuter_rail

Photo (cc) Jim Frazier from Flickr

The Globe reports that the MBTA is set to vote on service to T.F. Green and Wickford Junction. The T will pay the operating expenses for the service which will make the South Station to Warwick run in one hour and fifteen minutes. Rhode Island is spending $336 million to build the stations at T.F. Green and Wickford Junction.

Massachusetts will not pay any of the direct costs, but will continue to pay operating expenses on the Providence/Stoughton Line as part of its larger commuter rail system. The two states have operated under a similar deal for the past two decades, since commuter rail service to Providence began.

The MBTA keeps all ticket revenue and the state of Rhode Island contributes additionally to the T by absorbing costs on rail-related construction projects and rail cars. Over the past eight years, Rhode Island has contributed $11 million in project costs to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, St. Martin said.

Continue Reading →

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Fall River and the amazing technicolor Braga Bridge

Community Boating

Photo (cc) pierre lascott from Flickr

I had to drive to the Cape both of the last two weekends, and traveling over the Braga Bridge I had two thoughts, how many more decades is this eastbound lane restriction going to last and, when the hell is someone going to paint this damn thing?

Well, I still have no answer to the lane restriction question (that’s to do with work in the tunnel under City Hall), but the bridge painting, the Herald News of Fall River gives us an answer to that, next spring. But not only is the bridge being painted, Fall River residents are being asked to pick a new color.

The bridge currently sports a rust color… wha, hold on… I’m being told the bridge is actually green, but I find that hard to believe, I’m sure it is a shade of rust, much like the surface of Mars. Whatever, polls are being conducted at the O Jornal, WSAR-AM, and The Fall River Area Chamber of Commerce.

Though unofficial opinions around the city seemed to show that red was the front runner of color choices, MassHighway did not choose it as one of the finalist colors claiming that in other areas where bridges had been painted red, they had a tendency to fade to pink over time (and the problem with a pink bridge is what exactly?).

The final choices for the poll are shades of green, blue, and silver. Of the choices, I think I favor the dark (dare we call it Navy) blue. The Herald News has photo illustrations of the bridge color choices.

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Cahill, Patrick at odds over paying for South Coast rail

Railroad Tracks

Photo by Eric Rice from Flickr

Ted Nesi reports for Providence Business News about how Massachusetts State Treasurer Timothy Cahill and Governor Deval Patrick are not seeing eye to eye on funding for restoration of Commuter Rail service to New Bedford and Fall River.

Cahill, who may make a primary challenge against the governor next year, says there is no way, in the current economic climate that the Commonwealth can fund the $1.6 billion project. The only way he sees it being built is with federal money, and the Feds, he claims, are not to eager to give a post-Big Dig Bay State any more money. Cahill’s basic claim is that Patrick made promises to South Coast voters to get elected, and Cahill claims to be stating the facts instead of playing politics.

I tend to agree with Cahill in so far as Massachusetts cannot afford a $1.6 billion infrastructure project right now, no one can. But I had always assumed that federal funding was the governor’s way forward on this. How long is the Bay State’s contrition in regards to the Big Dig to last? The claim that federal tax payers were fleeced by Massachusetts are false, the lions share of the Big Dig was paid for and is continuing to be paid for by Bay State taxpayers alone.

We have an administration in Washington that is at the least paying lip service to mass transit. Cahill might want to change tack. Being honest with the voters is good, but telling the people on the South Coast you give up, without a fight, seems not a good way to win a primary. It behooves the Massachusetts delegation and the entire New England delegation to fight for more equitable funding for mass transit in upcoming federal transportation bills. Each state has transit plans that desperately need building, and each state is in an economic quagmire. The economic impact of a fully functioning mass transit system has to be the way forward for the region. Now is not the time to declare that all hope is lost.

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Transportation Schizophrenia

Traffic in Brisbane

Photo by neoporcupine from Flickr

Today, the Boston Globe reports on the MBTA’s plan for draconian cuts to bus, subway, and commuter rail services if they do not get money from the Commonwealth to cover a $160 million deficit. According to the Globe, the proposed cuts include:

  • Cutting half of the bus service after 8PM and all bus service on weekends.
  • Cutting half the subway service after 8PM and all subway service on weekends.
  • Removing all customer service agents from all stations.
  • Eliminating all weekend Commuter Rail service and all Commuter Rail service after 7PM.

Basically, getting rid of the T for all intents and purposes.

Meanwhile, The New Haven Register published an editorial by Senator Chris Dodd entitled, “It’s important to put public transit in driver’s seat.”

The Senator points out that transit ridership continues to be at record levels, even as gas prices have dropped from last year’s highs. He points to all the benefits of increased transit use, less air pollution, less dependance on foreign oil, better planned transit oriented communities… He also highlights the fact that while highway projects generally get 80% funding from the federal government, new transit projects get less than half their funding from the federal government (and he does not point this out, but operation costs for transit agencies get even less federal funding).

Roads will continue to be essential to the nation’s economic growth and competitiveness - as will the states’ role in building them. But America will never meet the challenges of this century with 50 states carrying out 50 different plans.

Or in the case of Massachusetts apparently (and pretty much every other state) no plan.

The states cannot maintain the transit systems we have in place now, let alone create the robust 21st century transit system this country and it’s metropolitan areas so desperately need and want. The federal government needs to play a much larger role.

It’s time the federal government mirrored the example set by communities across Connecticut. That is why I’ve written President Barack Obama urging him to establish a White House Office of Sustainable Development to ensure that we are coordinating all of these issues, as well as energy and environmental policies, in the most comprehensive, integrated way.

Yes, we need coordination at the federal level, but we also need the feds to show us the money. Coordination of state agencies that are hacking themselves to pieces do to budget crises will get us nowhere.

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Mass. takes baby step forward on South Coast rail

Scary city hall

Fall River City Hall photo by twentysixcats from Flickr

PBN reported yesterday about Massachusetts moving forward on environmental review of three proposals for transit options between Boston and Fall River and New Bedford.

  • Commuter rail through Attleboro: Fall River and New Bedford would gain access to South Station via a new bypass track through Norton and Attleboro to the Northeast Corridor. The study will evaluate both electric and diesel trains.
  • Commuter rail through Stoughton, the state’s preferred route: Fall River and New Bedford would gain service to South Station via a new link through Stoughton; an option might extend service to the Whittenton section of Taunton. Electric and diesel options will be evaluated.
  • Rapid bus: Fall River, New Bedford and Taunton would gain access to Boston via a dedicated, mostly-reversible bus lane that would be constructed along Route 24 and Interstate 93 / 128. The proposed bus service also would use the existing I-93 high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) “zipper” lane, and for a short portion of its trip, would travel through mixed traffic.

The option to route trains to Fall River and New Bedford via the Middleborough/Lakeville line seems to have been dropped.

The Stoughton option is the preferred and would likely provide the most direct and fastest service between the two South Coast cities and Boston. The Stoughton alternative faces stiff opposition from some towns along the route, most notably Easton. There are also environmental groups concerned about reactivating existing rail lines through sensitive wetlands.

The Attleboro alternative is potentially interesting in the future for connecting the South Coast to Providence. Though Route 195 is most direct, the Attleboro alignment would open the possibility of having service from Providence to New Bedford and/or Fall River. Service along the Attleboro alignment could also run from Providence, through Taunton and on to Middleborough, Buzzards Bay, and the Cape.

The third option, “rapid bus” is a non-starter in my eyes. First, a train can transport far more passengers than a bus or collection of buses. Secondly, even if fully built out, part of the “rapid bus” route would run in mixed traffic on clogged local highways. Third, the cost of building special lanes on Route 195, 24, and 93 would be better spent on rail infrastructure. If the “rapid bus” option was chosen, surely in 20 years the Commonwealth would again be discussing rail.

Now, the bus option actually could start running now as it will still be some years before trains depart from New Bedford and Fall River. Get bus services running now to build a passenger base that can be transitioned to the trains when they come online. I favor this for Rhode Island too. We should be running coaches from Quonset and Wickford through the airport and into Providence and Attleboro, creating the service that will eventually become the South County Commuter Rail.

Another thing to keep in mind from the Rhode Island perspective when it comes to South Coast rail is Newport. Plans are afoot to run a rail shuttle on Aquidneck Island. The Sakonnet River rail bridge has been removed, meaning that any island rail service will have to stay on the island. However, bridges can be rebuilt and the rail line runs right into Battleship Cove, where the Fall River Commuter Rail station is proposed. A Newport shuttle could provide commuter services for people from the island to transfer to the T in Fall River. It can also be used for tourist transit. Have Newport visitors leave their cars in Fall River (maybe visit Battleship Cove), then jump on a shuttle to Newport. Visitors from Boston could take the T to Fall River to hop on the island shuttle.

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T threatens night/weekend service cuts

MBTA 1130 (Rockport Line)

Photo by Voluntary Amputation from Flickr

Ugh.

ProJo and Boston.com report today that the MBTA is considering eliminating night and weekend commuter rail service to help close their bazillion dollar budget deficit. I really don’t have much else to say besides, “ugh.”

One question though, has the Turnpike Authority considered closing the Pike at night and on weekends to save money? I didn’t think so.

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Tolls: A stick with no carrot

Last Toll Plaza

Photo (cc) freakapotimus from Flickr

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has asked federal officials about the possibility of putting tolls at the Commonwealth’s borders [Boston.com / ProJo], including the border with Rhode Island. While the Governor is seeking these tolls to raise revenue for his financially strapped state to pay for transportation debt, including the Big Dig, tolls could also be used as a tool to increase the public’s use of transit and reduce our carbon emissions and reliance on foreign oil. However, tolls are a stick, to get people out of their cars we need carrots.

A special state panel here in Rhode Island also suggested tolls among other things to close funding gaps in the Ocean State. Thinking regionally (I know, that’s hard for us in New England), Rhode Island and Massachusetts could build toll plazas together on the RI/Mass borders. A toll plaza on Route 95 between the state line and Route 295 could encourage through traffic off Route 95, offering minor decongestion to traffic in Providence. There is no similar bypass for traffic on Route 195 and a toll plaza on the RI/Mass border there could result in traffic going through East Providence to use the Henderson Bridge, something I’m sure officials in East Providence would not be happy to see happen. But that is without the carrot.

Currently RIPTA is prohibited from operating in Massachusetts by federal regulations. As a result there is no public transit option for commuters coming into Providence from the South Coast of Massachusetts. Using the toll stick and stimulus money from the Federal government (and changing regulations to allow RIPTA to operate in the Commonwealth) we could very quickly get a bus system to Fall River and New Bedford (with hastily prepared park n’ rides along Route 195 in between) up and running. Gas prices, parking prices, tolls, traffic vs. a well run affordable transit option… People left their cars at home this summer.

Back to Route 95, we have MBTA service running north of Providence which would be a carrot to the tolls’ stick, but we need more granular transit. GATRA has spotty service through the Attleboros and Taunton, but it is not connected well to RIPTA or Providence. Again, let’s get some of that stimulus money working, RIPTA could take over and integrate GATRA service with an agreement between Massachusetts and Rhode Island to fund the Massachusetts routes and relief from the federal regulation that prohibit RIPTA’s operation out of state.

Massachusetts has readily attainable carrots at it’s other borders as well; New Haven-Hartford-Springfield Commuter Rail on the Connecticut border, Springfield-White River Junction Commuter Rail on the Vermont border, Commuter Rail to Nashua and Manchester on the New Hampshire border.

Our leaders need to take a second to breath and look beyond the crisis. Yes, tolls on the borders will probably help Massachusetts seal some of the leaks in it’s budget in the short term, but what will we be left with. Strike while the iron is hot, we’re ready to roll with real transit improvements that can be an asset to our collective New England economies for decades to come. Our Congressional Delegations need to hustle to get us the money.

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This is how Boston gets it done

The Boston Globe reports today about Boston’s high-tech approach to enforcing snow removal laws.

Code inspectors have taken to the streets this winter with a new weapon, palm-size computers with touch screens that snap photographs of treacherous patches of ice, snow, and slush. Thumbnail images are stamped on tickets and printed instantly with a wireless 32-ounce printer slung over an officer’s shoulder like a purse.

Officials hope the immediacy of the photographs will act as a deterrent, reducing the number of slick sidewalks that twist ankles, flare tempers, and force some pedestrians to walk in the street, which can be dangerous. When property owners find a green envelope for a code violation stuffed under their doors, they are staring at evidence they will have to explain if they plan to appeal.

Read that second paragraph again. Officials hope this will reduce the number of slick sidewalks, injuries, and people forced to walk in the street. Not a crazy ranting blogger hopes, Officials hope. The government in Boston actually sees this is an issue that needs to be addressed. Who knew a city could be run like that?

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