Lowell Politics Newsletter: March 17, 2024

March 17, 2024

Much of Tuesday’s Lowell City Council meeting was devoted to discussing the implementation of the new citywide 25 mph speed limit. Councilors seemed confused about it which is understandable: The new speed limit is citywide, yet it doesn’t apply to every street in the city.

According to the report, the sign department this week began replacing existing 30 mph speed limit signs with new ones that say 25 mph. Also, there is a state requirement that on all roads entering the city, a special “citywide speed limit of 25 mph unless otherwise posted” sign is required. The city is erecting these now.

I believe the new speed limit is already in effect, however, for the foreseeable future, the police will emphasize public education over strict enforcement of the law. For example, even when someone is stopped for driving in excess of the speed limit, instead of a ticket, they will be given educational materials.

There are 17 roads on which road-specific speed limit rules have previously been established. These will remain as is and won’t be subject to the new lower limit. A map on the city website identifies these streets. North of the river, the affected roads are Bridge Street, Lakeview Ave, and the VFW Highway/Pawtucket Boulevard. In Belvidere, they are Andover Street, Nesmith Street, and Rogers Street. In South Lowell, Gorham Street. In the Highlands, Chelmsford Street, Stevens Street, Westford Street, and part of Princeton Boulevard.

The purpose of this change is to make our roads safer. Given the built-up, heavily populated nature of much of Lowell, slower-moving vehicles should translate into safer conditions for drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

I do expect it will be difficult to achieve widespread compliance with the new speed limit. People are creatures of habit and for decades the habit has been to drive at a certain speed, and it will be tough to get people to change. Still, if the new limit means more people are driving closer to 30 mph than are driving at 35 mph, that will be a good outcome. And no matter what the posted speed limit, the supreme law of the road is “a speed safe under the circumstances” which in Lowell, often should be slower than what is posted.


Also on Tuesday’s agenda was an informational report on the use of ARPA funds to pay for certain improvements to affordable housing units owned by Lowell Housing Authority and Community Teamwork. This part of the meeting began with a triumphant tone from the City Manager but ended with sour feedback from several Councilors.

In his opening remarks, City Manager Tom Golden framed this investment as continued evidence of the city’s efforts to assist the neediest among us. The pushback from Councilors took several forms. Some argued that the money could be better spent on city-owned facilities and projects rather than providing it to a separate governmental agency like Lowell Housing Authority which should have its own funding sources. The other objection was the more familiar, “We already do so much for the homeless in Lowell, but we don’t want to spend any money helping homeless who come from other places since those other places aren’t doing enough.”

The criticism wasn’t universal. Several Councilors adopted a “the money may be going to LHA but it’s residents of Lowell who live in LHA properties so it’s a legitimate expenditure of city funds.”

I anticipated a dramatic roll call vote to end the discussion, but that’s not what happened. Instead, Mayor Rourke simply said, “motion to place on file” and moved the meeting along. It turns out this item was just for informational purposes and needed no Council action.

While the case for spending the money on LHA and CTI projects seemed logical, the report was light on justification for such an extra-jurisdictional expenditure. For example, is the city even allowed to divert money provided to the city by the Federal government for expenditures by other agencies like this? Presumably it is but it would have been nice to affirmatively hear that explanation. Similarly, there is an ever-lengthening list of things that need to be done to city-owned properties that perhaps could be funded with ARPA money. In the big picture, why is this project more important than those other things? Hearing the thinking behind that decision may have pre-empted some of the questions.


The “we shouldn’t be paying to care for homeless people from other communities” mantra gets at a bigger question on the power relationship among individual cities and towns and between those municipalities and the state. Last week I wrote about this conflict in the context of the state’s MBTA Communities Zoning Law and the fight between the Commonwealth and the town of Milton over its implementation.

CommonWealth Beacon, a nonprofit, non-partisan, online news site on Massachusetts politics, provided an update on that dispute. “A divided Milton heads into court” reports that with filing deadlines rapidly approaching in the suit filed against the town in the Supreme Judicial Court by the state Attorney General, the town has not yet even hired legal counsel to represent it in this case, mainly because the Select Board of the town is itself bitterly divided over the issue. Attorney General Andrea Campbell, on the other hand, is marching ahead, objecting to continuances requested by the town, and urging the SJC to keep to a tight schedule in deciding this important issue of government authority.

According to the CommonWealth story, here is what Campbell wrote in her opposition to further delay:

“The public interest strongly favors prompt resolution of the issues presented by this case, in view of the 129 cities and towns that are obligated to enact compliant zoning by December 31, 2024,” Campbell’s office said in a brief filed with the SJC last week. “Those cities and towns need this court’s guidance on the important issues that this case presents, and they need that guidance as soon as possible so that they have time to take the necessary steps to meet their own end-of-year deadlines.”

The importance of this issue transcends the MBTA Communities Act. It goes to the heart of “local control” of things like housing and education. Consider where the housing crisis might stand if zoning decisions were made statewide rather than by local planning boards. Or how the state’s achievements in K-12 education might improve if school assignments were made without regard to town boundaries.

Cities and towns are creations of the state, not the reverse, so my guess is that the SJC will side with the Attorney General in this case. If that is what happens, it will be interesting to see how much further the legislature will go in trying to dilute local control in this and other areas.


Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Happy Evacuation Day.

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