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Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Dispirited Transportation Board Avoids No-win Decision

Dennis Fox

March 2 , 2006

What's left of the Brookline Transportation Board tried to figure out last week how to end the town's two-hour daytime parking limit. The discussion was painful. No more fire. No more smugness. No more assurances that board members know best. It's come down to this: Help!

A couple of members have already escaped. Paul Mason huffed away months ago, when the Board of Selectmen first told the Transportation Board to accommodate Town Meeting's interest in letting residents park in front of their own houses. And now that Town Meeting has repeated itself more emphatically, Fred Levitan, the board's most vocal stalwart, has also resigned, leaving former co-chair Mike Sandman in charge of a board immobilized by competing urges.

Despite my long opposition to the two-hour rule's unfairness, ludicrousness, and invitation to police abuse, I've never thought changing the rule would be easy. No matter what the board does, people will complain. I'll probably be one of the complainers. But right now all I can complain about is their failure to take the next step, whatever that might be.

After Town Meeting first opposed the parking rule in 2004, the selectmen imposed on the Transportation Board a petition-based pilot program too limited and cumbersome to demonstrate anything useful. Even then the expected $300,000 cost was nothing but an expensive stall.

This past November a more insistent Town Meeting urged the board to "promptly declare and implement a policy ... so that, except in locations where particular problems are found, it should generally be legal for Brookline residents ... to park in the daytime for over 2 hours near their own homes, by means of a simple and easily obtainable permit program - without requiring petitions." This vote countered the claim that only a few rabble-rousers like Marty Rosenthal, the prime mover of this issue, really cared.

So how did the Transportation Board respond when it finally met last week, three months after Town Meeting demanded action?

First the board heard Transportation Engineer Uttam Nirmal report on that unnecessary pilot program. His figures from the test neighborhood revealed little interest in going through the petition process, an outcome predicted before the test began. The $30,000 spent so far has yielded, Nirmal said, "no real information."

Board Chair Sandman tried to conclude anyway, optimistically, that the data show "residents don't see competition for spots, so there's no need for a regulation," inspiring Rosenthal to respond that, although he agreed with the conclusion, "a lot of what's been said is wrong." Board member Abby Swaine pointed out, more than once, that the data apply only to one neighborhood. Eventually the board agreed that spending another $270,000 on a pilot program that already violates Town Meeting's wishes makes no sense.

Next the board considered regulating according to car-to-parking-spot ratio, with no daytime limit in "much of south Brookline," a two-hour limit for nonresidents in "some of north Brookline," and a two-hour limit for everyone in the "densest parts of north Brookline" near schools, T stops, businesses, and Boston. Those "densest parts" remain undefined and might mean almost everywhere.

Finally the board decided to discuss its unfinished draft with the Board of Selectmen and Town Meeting Members Association. Maybe they'll just keep passing the buck back and forth forever, because (as various board members said last week) "there's no easy solution," "it's bewildering," and we're "completely stymied." All that agonizing made me wish Fred Levitan was back.

Trying to tie up every loose end in advance when conditions vary block by block is destined to be expensive, time-consuming, ineffective, and criticized. Instead, after years of stalling, the board should simply reverse the two-hour rule and see what happens. They can even shrug: "You asked for it. You got it!"

Trusting residents to figure out what their own neighborhood needs might strike the bureaucratic mind as ridiculous, but after an unrestricted month or two we'll know which neighborhoods are overburdened and which are not. Where deregulation is unbearable, residents should be able to petition the Transportation Board for a local permit system and reasonable restrictions. In the rest of Brookline, we may discover, maybe no rule is the best rule of all.

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Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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