State Representative Jason Lewis announced his candidacy for Katherine Clark's empty State Senate seat in November, hoping to get out there and get people aware of his intentions to be a State Senator and to make sure that people in the district knew who he is and where he stands. Rep. Lewis took some time to talk to Winchester Patch about this issues that focus on the town and where they are in terms of progress and obtainability.
WP: I ask this to anyone running for office these days: Politicians are pretty unpopular in the public eye. Why put yourself out there in such a scrutinized field?
Rep. Lewis: Well, the reason I ran for office five years ago and why I’m running now is because I believe that civic engagement and public service is very important. We’ve got a lot of serious challenges in our own communities, at the state level and the federal, and I think we need to step forward and work on those issues. That’s what I’ve been focused on since I was first elected to the State House of Representatives in 2008.
I’ve worked a lot on local projects that are important to the community. Things like our schools, public transportation, flood mitigation and then on a state level, I’ve been able to work on school funding, healthcare issues, environmental issues. Those are the things that have driven me since the beginning and issues like those are the reason I decided to run for Senate.
I find that though there is some cynicism about politics today, when people actually get to know their elected officials, which is more possible when you serve in the state government then there is a much greater sense of mutual respect than when you’re further away from your district, like in Washington.
WP: Does that play into your early announcement as a candidate?
Rep. Lewis: There’s no question that there is a lot of work to do in the district. The Senate district is four times larger than the House district I cover now. So that means that there are thousands of families I need to reach out and need to get to know and introduce myself and show them what I’ve accomplished in the private sector, the State Senate and let them know what my goals are for my hopes are as a candidate for State Senator. So that’s a lot of doors to knock on. It’s a lot of events to hold for the next three months. Once I decided to run, which was in late November, I wanted to get started as soon as possible because of how much work there is to do.
WP: I had seen you and Katherine Clark when she was the Senator at a Selectmen’s Meeting in Stoneham when they were discussing the Green Space. This has been an ongoing issue for about as far back as memory can take us. What’s stalling this project and what are the next steps?
Rep. Lewis: So that is one of those local projects that is important, basically, my whole district. It goes from one end of Winchester to one end of Stoneham. It’s one of the projects I am most proud of. We have been able to make significant progress here. This project started in the early 1990’s. The land used to be part of a railroad line that was abandoned.
WP: Was it part of the T?
Rep. Lewis: Yeah, it was actually part of the old B&M railroad. It was a spur that ran off the Maine to Lowell Line and hadn’t been used in years. So all across the country and in Massachusetts, there has been a big effort to turn those old railways into green space and bike paths. So that’s where the idea came from. But, as is true for most of these projects, they are very difficult to bring them in fruition because there’s issue of land control and land use. There are also issues of getting the right approvals along the route, whether that’s because of landowners or something else.
For example, in Winchester it took a couple of years just to get the approval for the route to go past the Muraco Elementary School. So there were concerns of traffic flow and safety issues with the kids and all of that had to be factored into how the route could go past the school. And it took us a long time working with the school committee. And that’s just one example of how difficult this project is. But, that said, in the last few years, what we’ve been able to accomplish, we’ve moved the design to 75 percent complete and there’s a short timeframe until it’s complete. We’ve also been able to secure funding for the path.
We were approved $5 million for the project through state and federal funding, which means the money won’t come from the residents of Winchester and Stoneham. We worked for a long time to make the case that this project needed to be funded. And it’s competing with the rebuilding of Route 93/128 interchange and Crosby’s Corner and other green ways and bikeways. There are all these projects looking for approval. So we were able to get approval for the TIP program, which is the Transportation Improvement Program, which is the way all money in Massachusetts in allocated. So that means that money will be available for the Fall of next year and the design will be completed and construction will be able to start.
WP: So there is a timetable here?
Rep. Lewis: The $5 million will be available in the Fiscal Year ’15, which starts on October 1, 2014. So that’s Fall of next year, then the bidding process would start and we would expect construction to begin in Spring of next year.
WP: So there is a finish line?
Rep. Lewis: Oh, absolutely. I don’t know how long construction will last, but within the next two to three years, the project will be a reality after 25 years.
WP: Switching gears here, the high school project is the biggest financial undertaking in the last decade here in Winchester. I saw you at the meeting at the Jenks Center a few months ago where the town laid out a pretty detailed plan. When you’re dealing with a project that big, even though things have started, what is next for that and how do you measure progress? Where do we think we are and is the timetable realistic?
Rep. Lewis: I think the rebuilding of Winchester High School is the most important project the town is undertaking in this entire decade. And maybe even the next several decades. The High School is the backbone of the whole school system and the Winchester Public School system is the backbone of the whole community. First thing I would say is that I’m both pleased a grateful to the town’s residents for supporting the rebuilding project. It was great to see the strong turn out. People were paying attention and saw it was important.
Where we are right now it, really right in the middle. We’ve had three years already of coming up with the best possible plan. That plan was just approved and now we have about three more years to construct the school. With what I have seen of the project, I do believe we will be able to complete the project on time and on the budget. We have a very well thought out plan with very talented people who are steering the project with the EFPBC and the Board of Selectmen, Town Manager and the Superintendent. We are doing this project with the Massachusetts School Building Authority and they have been excellent partners. They bring a lot of knowledge and technical expertise. Construction should begin as soon as school is out and I believe we will have a totally rebuild high school by Fall of 2017.
WP: Will there be a whole demolition show with bulldozers and wrecking balls?
Rep. Lewis: It’s a complicated but good plan. The actual foundation is sound and is not being torn down. It’s the roof and the walls, windows and interior are being demolished and rebuilt. That’s going to start next summer and it will happen in phases. There are three academic wings. They’re going to the first academic wing in the first phase, the other two in the second and the auditorium next. I have a daughter at Winchester High School, so obviously we want to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the kids while creating the best learning environment we can.
WP: Will your daughter get to see the final product?
Rep. Lewis: The current students get to benefit from the facilities as they are completed. So the first of the academic wings will be finished when she’s a junior and all the wings will be completed by her senior year.
WP: My next question is about the culverts in the town. Winchester used to be called Waterfield because it was essentially that. How do you go against the forces of nature? There have been some serious issues with flooding here.
Rep. Lewis: Flood mitigation is something that dates back to the late 90’s when this became a problem. It’s not anything Winchester has done. It’s actually the upstream watershed of the Aberjona River. As more land has been paved over, more and more land that used to be permeable is not anymore and that creates a lot of runoff. That’s what has created this environment conducive to flooding.
WP: And dredging the river is not an option?
Rep. Lewis: No, because then it just takes a little bit longer for the flooding to fill up, but you still have the same problem. So that isn’t a solution. But there is a plan that has been in the works for years. The State even signed off on it. This was an early project I worked on, the Secretary of Environmental Affairs had to sign off on it because it’s a regional plan, and whatever Winchester does, it cannot make flooding worse down river. So we work with towns like Medford, the City of Somerville and with the State Environmental Protection. It was signed off on four years ago.
We’ve made excellent progress. The new dam between the Upper and Lower Mystic Lakes was built by the DCR. Now we can control the water level in the Upper Mystic Lake. When we know a storm is coming, the DCR takes the water level down so we can handle the water volume, which we couldn’t do with the old dam. The other project of widening the river is complete and the Centerfalls Dam project is ongoing. The next project upstream is the additional culvert under Skillings Field.
The State has allocated $2 million to Winchester for flood mitigation. That funding will be available in the near future. That project would be the next one. Two projects outside of the town is the rebuilding of the bridge and the reminents of the locks in Medford. The other project is Scally Dam of Horn Pond, which needs to be rebuilt. That’s a tricky project to fund because the dam is in Woburn and they wouldn’t see any benefit by fixing it. So it’s kind of hard to convince the City of Woburn to pay for it. It’s also tricky to convince Winchester residents to fund a project that isn’t in Winchester. So the State funding is very important.