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The story behind Washington Street’s never-ending road work

Utility work on Washington Street in October. Photo by Sam Mintz
February 27, 2024

Washington Street, a main thoroughfare through Brookline, has been overtaken by utility work for months, frustrating neighbors and users of the road. There are more changes coming down the line.

After being repaved about a year and a half ago, the street has recently been torn up again by National Grid, as the utility company works on replacing over a mile of aging cast iron and bare steel pipes underground. For months, police and workers have had to put makeshift lanes in place with cones, waving traffic through. Neighbors say the noise and construction traffic has been deafening and intrusive.

The work, town officials say, is necessary both in the short-term and in service of another, broader project to redesign the heavily-trafficked stretch a few years down the road.

For now, neighbors and users will have to wait a few months more for relief: Brookline DPW Commissioner Erin Chute said the utility work is expected to continue through July.

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A ‘deafening roar’

Beth Wallace, a longtime Brookline resident who lives on Washington Street, has been perturbed by what she sees as a never-ending period of construction outside her front door.

“We are extremely unhappy about Washington Street because the street had been beautifully repaved about a year ago, but now it’s like driving in an undeveloped country,” she said.

She has watched as workers dug “huge trenches” up and down the street, putting down metal plates which make loud noises when cars roll over them. One night, an unfastened plate led to what she called a “deafening roar.”

“We had a great deal of trouble sleeping,” Wallace said.

Wallace said she has been particularly frustrated with National Grid’s contractor, Feeney Brothers.

“They were really inadequate in terms of informing us about the nature of this,” she said. “They just don’t seem to have really thought about the experience of the residents on the street.”

A spokesperson from Feeney Brothers declined to comment for this story.

Michael Dalo, a spokesperson for National Grid, said the company has been coordinating with Brookline officials and has biweekly operational calls with town public works officials. The utility company also mailed letters to abutters about the work being done in the area, Dalo said.

Construction equipment staged on the side of Washington Street in February. Photo by Alexa Coultoff

Long-term plans for the street

The work was pushed up because of a future major redesign of Washington Street that the town says will make it more accessible and safer.

Using a “Complete Streets” approach, the project, from Washington Square to Brookline Village, aims to accommodate all users of the roadway — including pedestrians, bicyclists, micro-mobility users, transit riders, public safety vehicles, and motorists of all ages and abilities — according to the project website. Design plans are currently underway, and construction is tentatively slated to start in 2027.

Brian Kane, chair of Brookline’s Transportation Board, said the town has received almost $30 million in state and federal funding for the project.

Chute, the commissioner of public works, said her team put National Grid on notice that they had an important project coming up and needed to get any utility work done in advance of fiscal year 2027. She said she understands residents’ frustration with the work occurring after the roadway was freshly repaved.

National Grid found “lots of operational problems” underneath the street, such as segments of old railroad ties and concrete structures, which has “added to the length of the project,” Chute said.

Chute said she expects work to be fully completed by the end of July.

Brookline Select Board Vice Chair John VanScoyoc said he agrees with the neighbors who have expressed frustration.

“Utilities come before us frequently to dig into streets and it ends up leaving behind a lot of damage,” VanScoyoc said.

The ultimate goal of the Complete Streets Project are worth the wait, Kane said.

He led a November design review meeting, which gave Brookline residents the opportunity to hear the plans for the long term project and offer input. He said by hosting these meetings, the planning becomes “much more inclusive” and “allows citizens to have input in the design while it’s happening.”

The Washington Street Kane and his team envision includes narrower car lanes to make it a “safe road for everyone to use.”

In the meantime, Kane said he understands residents’ frustrations about the construction, but believes the need to ensure the street has safe utility infrastructure takes precedence over proper notification.

Maintaining the funding for the project and support from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation is a lengthy process, Kane and Chute both said.

“Sometimes roads have to get dug up to be fixed,” Kane said.

Alexa Coultoff and Juliette Piovoso are journalism students at Northeastern University.