How a minority of voters killed a plan to extend the Minuteman Bikeway

A proposal to extend the Minuteman Bikeway from Bedford Depot to the Concord line was defeated earlier this week even though an overwhelming majority of residents voted in favor of it. And that’s a good excuse to rant a bit about how difficult it is to build anything these days.

Bedford, which has an open town meeting, voted by a margin of 350 to 258 to spend $1.5 million on the project — then voted 363 to 235 in favor of taking by eminent domain the easements needed to expand and pave the dirt trail that’s currently there. As Mike Rosenberg reports in The Bedford Citizen, that’s 60% — a substantial margin, but short of the necessary two-thirds.

Now, New England town meetings have been voting down needed spending plans for generations. When I was a kid growing up in Middleborough, town meeting delayed building a new high school for years, resulting double sessions. But the just-say-no mentality appears to have gotten worse.

New York Times columnist and podcast host Ezra Klein has explored on several occasions why we have given a veto to a minority of loud NIMBY types. We are dealing with a pretty horrendous housing shortage in this country and especially in this state, yet it’s proven nearly impossible to build more-dense developments near transportation hubs. Those who want to preserve their two-acre lots in the suburbs turn out to have a louder voice — and more power — than the rest of us.

As I understand it, the eminent domain takings in Bedford weren’t going to result in any houses being removed. I’ve ridden along the dirt path that’s there now — it’s called the Reformatory Branch Trail because it used to run all the way to the Concord prison — and it’s in the middle of the woods.

And I’m not saying that opponents didn’t have at least an argument to make. A lot of trees would be removed, and the dirt trail, currently underpopulated, would probably become as crowded as the rest of the Minuteman. Which is to say, very. Moreover, the improved Minuteman would end at the Concord line, as there are no plans to extend the Reformatory Branch through Concord to the center of that town. The presence of the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge would probably make it impossible in any case.

Yet I’m told that the Reformatory Branch becomes a mud bowl whenever it rains — something I haven’t experienced, since I’ve only ridden it on sunny days. Some residents have also pointed out that a paved path would be more accessible to people with disabilities. In the end, none of that mattered to the minority of voters who wanted to stop the project. And that’s where we are.

Rosenberg describes the proposal as being “on life support.” Ready for interment is more like it.

Does better news coverage lead to greater voter engagement? The answer: It depends.

Meaningful participation in civic life isn’t possible without access to high-quality news and information. Consider the most fundamental aspect of community engagement: voting in local elections. If prospective voters lack the means to inform themselves about candidates for the select board, the city council, the school committee and the like, then it follows that they will be less likely to vote.

But is the reverse also true? Does the presence of a reliable news source result in a higher level of voter participation? To find out, I compared two towns, Bedford and Burlington, both northwest of Boston.

Read the rest at Storybench, a website about media innovation published by Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

Bedford Depot

Twenty-three-mile-plus ride, mostly along the Minuteman.

From Lexington to Concord along the Minuteman and Reformatory Branch Trails

We rode 16-plus miles today along the Minuteman Bikeway from Lexington center and the Reformatory Branch Trail from Bedford to Concord, which was new to use. Enjoy!

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Where we started.
The route.
Minuteman terminus in Bedford.
Smile!
Reformatory Branch Trail.
Mary Putnam Webber Wildlife Preserve.
Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.
Along the trail.
Near the end in Concord.
Big sky.

The Post’s data on hospice care should spur local editors

Click on image for interactive map at washingtonpost.com
Click on image for interactive map at washingtonpost.com

If I were running a news organization that covered Sudbury, Bedford, Amherst, Worcester, Northbridge, Taunton or Fall River, I’d be taking a close look at a database published on Sunday by The Washington Post.

According to an investigation by the Post, one in six hospices in the United States did not provide crisis care to their dying patients in 2012. “The absence of such care,” wrote Post reporters Peter Whoriskey and Dan Keating, “suggests that some hospice outfits are stinting on nursing attention, according to hospice experts. Inspection and complaint records, meanwhile, depict the anguish of patients who have been left without care.”

And, indeed, Whoriskey and Keating offer some horror stories, starting with 85-year-old Ying Tai Choi, a Tampa, Florida, woman whose nurse abandoned her an hour before she died.

What gives the Post’s investigation value beyond its immediate impact, though, is that the paper uploaded the database it used to carry out its reporting. The Post says it analyzed Medicare billing records for more than 2,500 hospice organizations as well as “an internal Medicare tally of nursing care in patients near death and reviewed complaint records at hundreds of hospices.”

By showing its work, the paper has provided valuable leads for follow-up stories by news organizations across the country.

According to the database, 16 percent of 43 hospice facilities serving 22,865 patients in Massachusetts reported providing no crisis care in 2012. That percentage is right around the national average, though it is higher than any other New England state.

Under Medicare rules, a hospice must be able to provide crisis care to its terminally ill patients, which the Post tells us is “either continuous nursing care at home or an inpatient bed at a medical facility.” The Post is careful to point out that the mere fact that a facility did not provide crisis care in a given year is not evidence that there’s anything wrong. It’s possible that none of its patients needed it. A further explanation:

The absence of crisis care does not necessarily indicate a violation of the rules. But hospice experts say it is unlikely that larger hospices had no patients who required such care.

In other words, the database provides questions, not answers — precisely the information news organizations need for follow-up reports at the local level. Investigative reporting is expensive and time-intensive. The Post’s hospice story provides journalists with a great head start.