Redesign digs for downtown traffic cure

By Connie Paige
Globe Correspondent / September 10, 2009

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It’s taken more than a century of false starts, but a proposed redesign of the intersection of two state highways and busy railroad tracks in downtown Framingham finally has traction - if not the full estimated $113.9 million needed for completion.

Proponents say the recommendation to build a tunnel sending Route 135 below Route 126 at the railroad crossing, as well as other traffic improvements, would prompt a downtown renaissance in Framingham and spur economic development in neighboring towns and throughout the region.

“That intersection is an economic hub not only for Framingham but for the region and the state,’’ said state Senator Karen E. Spilka. “We really need to prioritize that hub and fix it.’’

Meanwhile, Ashland, too, is wrestling with downtown traffic congestion caused by the rail lines, which carry commuter trains as well as freight along the Boston-Worcester corridor.

Since 1898, when Framingham did its first analysis, local officials have been frustrated by the bottleneck at the intersection of Route 126, or Concord Street, which runs north to south across the railroad tracks at grade level, and Route 135, or Waverly Street, which runs west to east roughly parallel to the tracks.

When the gates go down at the railroad crossing, the vehicles waiting on Route 126 can stretch back through a series of traffic lights into the heart of downtown Framingham, while Route 135 traffic is clogged by drivers waiting to head north across the tracks. The latest redesign proposal says 35 to 40 studies through the years have not resolved the backups caused by the stopping and starting vehicles.

In addition to Route 126, there are 10 other grade-level railroad crossings in Framingham contributing to traffic congestion, said Alison C. Steinfeld, the town’s director of community and economic development.

The proposal, four years in the making and due to be unveiled in Framingham next Tuesday, would tunnel Route 135 under Route 126, providing unrestricted traffic flow along Route 135. Another recommendation is acquisition of all or part of the three railroad yards adjacent to the tracks owned by national freight hauler CSX Corp. That would free up about 200 acres for various other uses, Steinfeld said. Also mentioned as a future possibility are tunnels or bridges bypassing the railway at other points.

In addition to loosening up the traffic logjam, proponents say, the proposal also could benefit the town by improving public safety, providing housing opportunities, expanding public open space, improving the look of the downtown, creating additional parking, and easing the way for more pedestrians and bicycles.

“This town has gridlock in the downtown area between two and a half and three hours per day strictly due to the downtown being fundamentally a primary rail access point and rail storage yard,’’ said Town Manager Julian Suso. “This project is key to alleviating that gridlock.’’

Still, not everyone believes the proposal spells progress for downtown.

“I think it’s fine the way it is,’’ said Christopher Mahoney, owner of RE/MAX One Call Realty on Concord Street. “Having heavy traffic helps my business. These people are stopped in front of my shop no matter what they do.’’

On a typical weekday, about 22,000 cars are halted as 62 trains move through the intersection of Route 126 and Route 135, said Spilka, an Ashland Democrat whose Senate district covers Ashland, Framingham, Holliston, and Hopkinton, and parts of Natick, Franklin, and Medway. Especially during rush hour, the backups can cause havoc for area motorists, who may be using the intersection while traveling to or from the Massachusetts Turnpike, Route 9, Route 30, and Interstate 495.

The proposal, part of the Framingham Downtown Study Draft Report, says the gates close five times in the morning rush hours, causing delays totaling 12 minutes and 30 seconds, and six times in the afternoon commute, causing delays of a total of 9 minutes and 40 seconds.

Spilka said the congestion will only get worse if the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority makes good on its promise to double the number of commuter trains on the Boston-Worcester corridor - a prospect about which she has mixed feelings.

“I’m a big advocate for public transportation,’’ Spilka said. “My constituents would benefit by it. The state would benefit by it. It would help economically. But it’s hard for this area to throw themselves 100 percent behind more public transportation without some mitigation.’’

The biggest challenge for proponents is funding. Local, state, and federal officials are working to obtain the money to complete the blueprints for the project. Spilka said she has secured about $4.5 million in transportation and economic stimulus funds earmarked for design completion. She said more money is needed, although the exact amount is uncertain.

The project’s total price tag has been estimated at $113.9 million by the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization. Spilka said the organization’s inclusion of the Framingham project on its priority list will help secure federal funding.

This version of the project grew out of a 1997 study of the Route 126 corridor that recommended depressing Route 126 under both the railroad tracks and Route 135.

In the fall of 2005, Framingham secured a $40,000 state transportation grant to update the corridor study. The latest report recommends against sending the road below Route 135 and the tracks, saying it would create too much of a physical barrier between the east and west sides of Concord Street in the core of downtown.

Meanwhile, Ashland has commissioned two studies for ways to mitigate its two grade-level crossings downtown, according to Town Manager John D. Petrin, who said he expects them to be completed by early next year.

Connie Paige can be reached at