Traffic surge on Rte. 128 predicted

More options are needed, group says

By Scott Van Voorhis
Globe Correspondent / June 30, 2011

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A potential traffic meltdown looms on a key stretch of Route 128 west of Boston unless steps are taken to get more commuters out of their cars and onto trains and buses, a new report warns.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council projects a 77 percent increase in traffic over the next decade or two along the highway from the intersection with Route 3 to the Massachusetts Turnpike.

To make way for the surge in traffic as new development and new jobs are created along the corridor, state and local officials need to look at a mix of short-term and long-term solutions, according to the Planning Council.

The suggestions include coordinating the schedules of private shuttle buses, building a regional multimodal transportation center along Route 128, and ferrying workers from commuter rail stops to office parks along the highway.

“This area certainly has a lot of growth potential, but the question is, how can we have that economic development without completely strangling the corridor with traffic congestion?’’ said Eric Bourassa, transportation manager at the council.

All told, Route 128’s central corridor could see traffic swell by 150,000 cars and trucks per day, depending on how quickly the area is developed. That’s on top of the current 200,000 vehicles that already use the highway each day, a number that is considered well above capacity, according to the council.

Driving the increase is an expected surge in jobs and office construction along the 12.6-mile stretch of highway. Roughly 47 new development projects have either been recently completed, are in construction, or are in planning along Route 128’s central corridor.

The vast majority of the projected increase in traffic — 86 percent — is linked to new development projects in Waltham and Burlington, the report finds.

“There are lots of opportunities for economic development in the corridor, but in order to be able to achieve those, we need to do something about transit,’’ said Jeanne Krieger, a former Lexington selectwoman who chairs the 128 Central Corridor Coalition.

The report highlights a series of recommendations to cope with the influx by the coalition, a working group made up of elected officials from Burlington, Lexington, Lincoln, Waltham, and Weston, as well as other corridor business groups, such as the 128 Business Council and the 128 Corporate Alliance.

The proposals, made in the spirit of starting discussion, mix ideas that could be implemented in the next few years with others that could take a decade or more.

“This report raises a lot of questions and throws some ideas out there,’’ Bourassa said.

The proposal for a transportation hub, tentatively slated for Weston or Waltham, is the most ambitious proposal, Bourassa said.

The plan would involve converting a commuter rail station, and given the state and local approvals and complexity, could take a decade or more to bring to fruition, he said.

A feasibility analysis, to be paid for largely by the new developer of the old Polaroid site in Waltham, will help determine the cost and other specifics, Bourassa said.

The only comparable project, in Greenfield, cost $15 million to $20 million, he said.

Other proposals on the list, such as improving coordination among bus services and the potential for express service, could be put into effect more quickly.

Converting the shoulder of the highway into a dedicated bus lane, though, is an idea state officials are not rushing to embrace.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation “has considered bus-on-shoulder but is not pursuing it at this time,’’ wrote Richard Nangle, a spokesman for the agency, in an e-mail, citing safety and environmental concerns.

Bourassa contends the idea is not simply to convert the shoulder as is, but to modify it so it can be safely used for bus travel.

Meanwhile, the report also suggests several other ideas — some unusual for highways in the Boston area — that may be worth exploring in a future study.

These include:

■Express lanes: The lanes on Route 128 would be divided, between through lanes and exit lanes, in order to alleviate gridlock. Initially it would involve electronic message boards urging commuters to move to the correct lanes; the highway could be divided more formally if that fails to work.

■Dynamic messaging: Route 128 would be reconstructed with a fiber-optic network put underneath the highway. Sensors would measure volume and speed, while cameras would track accidents, congestion, and breakdowns. Dynamic message boards would be installed overhead, providing information on road conditions. The shoulder/breakdown lane would be converted to full use, with vehicle pull-off areas installed every mile.

■Variable speed limits: Speed limits, communicated by overhead message signs, would change as roadway conditions shift, especially during rush hour.

The report also sheds light on other issues, such as where most Route 128 commuters live and the road’s peak use times.

The traffic congestion is attributed mainly to the expansion of adjacent companies with offices and labs. All told, 80 percent of those who work along Route 128’s central corridor commute from other parts of the state and region, according to the study.

Most come from other communities within the 495 beltway, though a significant number hail from Rhode Island, Connecticut, and even southern Maine. In fact, 11 percent make the trek every day from southern New Hampshire.

Peak rush hour times, according to a survey of commuters done for the study, are 8 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m., with 5 to 5:30 p.m. listed as the most popular time for leaving work, according to the report.

“The only obvious solution is to find ways we can reduce the number of automobiles and vehicles,’’ said Michael Harrity, Weston selectman and a member of the 128 Central Corridor Coalition. “The challenge is that people come from so many different locations and go to so many different locations it is hard to find simple solutions.’’

Meanwhile, some already see a shift in attitude in Route 128’s corporate community, which is increasingly embracing shuttle bus service and car-sharing to help reduce the growing hassles of the daily commute along the highway, according to Robert Buckley, senior partner at the law offices of Riemer & Braunstein in Burlington, who works with developers on projects along the corridor.

“Many of the major employers have already implemented shuttle buses or ride share programs to move their employees,’’ Buckley said.

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