By Sarah Marshall
There is always something interesting going on in Town government – seriously! Within the last several weeks, Town staff and councilors hosted two eye-opening presentations that I summarize here: one on how our roads are prioritized for repair or reconstruction, and another on the bears that call Amherst home.
First, the roads. This blog recently shared a post on potholes, but many of our roads need more than a few patches. How does the Department of Public Works (DPW) decide what roads need major repairs? Is it a political process? Town Engineer Jason Skeels explained how DPW “takes the politics out of paving” at a meeting in April.
Every few years, the Town hires StreetScan to deploy a vehicle like the one shown above, outfitted with fancy cameras, GPS, and data-logging equipment. Like Google’s cars that accumulate data for Street View, this vehicle photographs the condition of Amherst’s 100+ miles of roads in detail. Below is a view of a road from the rear camera.
Sections of each road are rated as shown in the chart above, with “Pavement Condition Index” ratings color-coded from Failed to Excellent. The ratings are overlain on a map of Amherst’s roads, as follows. (A similar, but out-of-date, map can be found on DPW’s Highways web page.)
Overall, this year’s data indicate that about 43 percent of Amherst’s roads are in poor or very poor condition and the balance are in fair to excellent condition. As the map indicates, many of the roads in poor shape are small, neighborhood roads.
The cost of fixing all of the roads in short order is prohibitive. Each year, DPW develops a list of roads or road sections to be prioritized for different types of repair, ranging from crack sealing to complete reconstruction. This list is based on the PCI and traffic data – not on complaints – thus largely insulating the decisions from pressure from individuals or neighborhoods. Depending on the funds available, any constraints on those funds (for example, Town’s general revenue versus state funds versus Community Development Block Grants), and the estimated cost of the work, the Town solicits bids and proceeds to conduct as much of the work as can be funded. In the table below, for example, projects at the bottom will be undertaken if the money stretches that far.
DPW has a fairly good idea of how quickly roads will deteriorate in the several years between StreetScan updates, so it can prioritize projects two or three years out. It is reluctant to make those lists public, however, since people’s expectations may be dashed if funding is inadequate or some roads deteriorate faster than expected and priorities are altered.
So when will your road be repaired? If your road is in yellow, orange, or red and is heavily used, sooner rather than later, if funds allow. If your road is green, you can expect crack-sealing to keep it in good condition. But if your yellow, orange, or red road is less traveled by (like mine), you may wait longer. And complaining probably won’t help, although you can always request a pothole repair.
Now, about that black bear on your deck: she has learned that you put out birdseed. Dave Wattles of MassWildlife told a virtual audience earlier this month that there is no such thing as a “bird” feeder – rather, you or your neighbors put out “wildlife” feeders. Perhaps you only want to see birds, but the seeds and suet are calorie-dense foods sought by many animals. Bears will learn the locations of feeders and return repeatedly. What’s more, the sows (mothers) teach their cubs where to find the wildlife feeders, and the offspring will return on their own after they have left the sow’s care.
Bears also learn where other human-associated foods can be found, such as garbage in cans or dumpsters, chicken coops, and beehives, all of which are increasing in our area. Given the bears’ strength, garbage should be kept in the home until the morning of trash pick-up or placed in bear-proof receptacles. Electric fences around beehives and chicken coops will deter bears without harming them (or humans) but must be maintained. Information about protecting hives and coops can be found here.
Over the last year, a sow with three cubs repeatedly roamed through Amherst, even through downtown neighborhoods, and concern and interest among residents prompted the on-line talk (view it here. Dave explained how MassWildlife tracks bears throughout the state. In brief, staff tranquilize animals after catching them in barrel traps or tracking them to dens, assess their health and weight, and fit them with ear tags (if grown males) or GPS tracking collars (if grown females). The collars give location data for females every 45 minutes, enabling maps such as these:
Each color represents a different sow and shows the home range through which she moves. These home ranges can include areas even more urbanized than Amherst. We also see that home ranges can overlap. The map above does not include data for the Amherst sow, but that is shown here, in green:
Dave emphasized that the bears are not aggressive and are not a problem. Relocating them is fruitless, because either they will promptly return or other bears will move into the area. MassWildlife’s goal is for the bears to live off naturally occurring food sources. We can help by removing the wildlife feeders – or using them only when bears are likely to be hibernating, approximately December through late February – securing garbage containers, and protecting chicken coops and beehives with electric fencing. In the absence of these human-provided foods, bears will spend less time in neighborhoods and get off your deck.