The Great Seal of the Town of Saugus, Massachusetts

The Town of Saugus
Traffic Study Committee

Route One Traffic and Safety Committee

The original Newburyport Turnpike was first laid out through Saugus around 1805 as a privately financed and operated toll road. At that time, Saugus was just empty space full of swamps and woodland, and since the road was laid out in a straight line, it bypassed all of the local settlements. Although several stagecoach runs regularly plied the turnpike in this era, much of the Boston to the namesake city preferred the coastal route where the majority of the population was. With the construction of the railroads in 1840, the toll road ceased to be economically viable, the private operators abandoned the venture and the sparsely used path fell under public domain. Saugus at that time cared little for this turn of events as by 1853, train service to town was far superior. As just another profit making venture that became a public expense of questionable merit, even into the age that ushered the automobile, the state level authorities did not think much of the potential for this commercial venture turned public path. A 1907 Massachusetts highway department report recommended against making it a state highway. Photos as late as 1919 show Saugus as little more than a dirt road lined with telephone poles out in the woods. In an amazing 15 year process of transformation, the "turnpike" went from this seldom used out of the way path to a six lane divided highway. One of the very first "super highways of the future" that would conduct the motoring public in the greatest safety and forever free from traffic congestion. This should be a reminder to us all that one should never say never about any transportaton corrider through the town that has fallen into disuse, written off as obselete, or adjusted as not practical or possible by contemporary sensibilities and values. The post war building boom positioned the town just about perfectly to take advantage of a nation on wheels, and a drive in culture, as far as revenue producing commercial development goes. Over the last fifty years this model has served well, despite the love hate relationship we collectively share with our river of motorized metal, it has been the golden goose that has kept our taxes low and allowed us access to the rest of the world around us, as one of the first tier of postwar automobile suburbs on a main line transportation artery serving three principle functions:

  • An interstate highway
  • A commuter highway
  • A commercial boulevard

For better or worse, the Interstate Highway System has its missing link in the North Shore, leaving the turnpike as the way motor traffic will get from here to there, no matter how someone puts up a route designation. We need to recognize that transportation policies and actions more than half a century ago, determined our land use destiny. Decisions we make today will determine our destiny for generations to come. From observing the trends as the roadway system began to reach saturation, more roadways constructed out into the hinterlands also have been reaching capacity as this practice accelerated the effects of suburban sprawl. What should be also noted here is that with low density patterns and single use zoning, the local collector roadway systems saturate even before buildout is reached.

The first communities to bear the impacts and burdens of these practices will be the first tier suburbs such as our town, mostly in the form of political pressure to increase capacity on existing highways with little regard to the consequences to the host municipality. As we are not alone, with scant variation, residents adopt a seige mentality, and go about the standard gamut of sandbagging tactics against the rising river of urbanization, by using whatever regulations are at hand to make development and redevelopment more expensive and difficult, failing to come to grips with the reality that the community is urbanizing, will be assimilated, and the resistance is futile. The current land use policies of the rapidly growing communities, and the auto dependancy that they spawn, generally leads to the usual knee jerk "raise the bridge" roadway capacity upgrades as the sole method to address the sitsuation. The State Highway Department mentality is invariably to engineer a stretch of roadway for higher capacity and speeds, and promote it as "safety improvements".

So where are we in the scheme of things? The first thing we have to do is face up to the reality that Saugus is not a small rural town, or even a subdivision theme park suburb. In the professional circles that deal with metropolitan planning issues, we would be considered an edge city of highway oriented developement, overlaid upon the transit oriented development that preceded it. Also to be noted, is that the town is rapidly approaching "build out" that is 100% developed under the current land use regulations and practices in force. Attending several forums and workshops on development, land use and quality of life themes in the recent past, it is notable that we are not alone in our sitsuation, as the wave of suburban sprawl has moved outward from the central city, communities great and small have been attempting to come to terms with sitsuations very similar to our own.

As change is inevitable, we must size to the opportunity to be proactive, and control the change. The four options available are:

  • Freeze all development (maintain status quo).
  • Allow local congestion to ultimately constrain traffic volumes at increased travel times.
  • Widen the roads again.
  • Find ways for people to conduct their affairs without having to drive so much.

We must think of this issue in the long term, for transportation and land use are inextricably linked. Given the explosive growth in the northern suburbs, any superficial, piece-meal, political solutions will be quickly obsolete. It is time to design an urban Saugus, or it will become the default design that has been replicated thousands of times all across the nation. A "Los-Angelized" dystopia of parking lots, mean streets, ugly strip malls, misanthropic cul-de-sac subdivisions, 20,000 square foot snake oil selfishness, and cumpulsory automobile use that our current public policy has created for us.

After identifying what needs to be analyzed, the task of gathering information began. Along with discussions among ourselves, there was a limited amount of participation from town citizens relating their own experiences as well as a former town planner, and Community Developer Director. We would like to pass on what we have learned so far, alternate visions we would like to explore, and to educate this body, and our audience about the dynamic of how we as a community have gotten to where we are today, and where we could go from here so as to inspire a greater amount of interest in this subject, and pre-recommendation participation, so as our efforts will be fruitful.

Our final report is now available in a few formats.

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