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Debate continues around Rutherford Avenue redesign

Posted by Johanna Kaiser  December 7, 2012 02:17 PM

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The long discussed and fiercely debated plan to redesign Charlestown’s aging Rutherford Avenue continued Thursday, even as funds for the project’s design have been rerouted to other areas.

At a public meeting to discuss the design of the Rutherford Avenue and Austin Street intersection, Boston Transportation Commissioner Thomas J. Tinlin said federal funds for the project had dropped to $11.5 million from $13 million.

While the $13 million was originally designated for the project’s design, the state has taken $1.5 million from the fund, according to Tinlin. Congress allows states, with its permission, to use earmarked federal funds for other purposes if the funds are not used in a certain amount of time.

The city began its efforts to transform Rutherford Avenue, a massive concrete relic of the mid-20th century where trucks and through traffic travel at highway speeds, into an urban boulevard that was pedestrian and bike friendly in 2008.

In 2010, the Charlestown Neighborhood Council voted for a plan that would fill in Rutherford’s underpasses at Sullivan Square and Austin Street, reconfiguring the unfriendly Sullivan Square rotary and Austin Street intersection, and adding traffic lights along Rutherford’s route.

The ambitious plan soon met opposition from residents who question the traffic studies and growth projections, and worry traffic lights will clog the road and neighborhood streets with stop-and-go traffic.

Since then, the city has held more meetings to answer questions and offer changes in an attempt to reach a consensus, but few residents have budged from what they see is the best plan for the neighborhood.

“As long as we’re invited to come back we’re going to, but that comes with great jeopardy as well,” Tinlin told the more than 100 people in attendance. “Our state government, with our federal government’s permission, has already taken $1.5 million away from Charlestown.”

No money has been set aside for the project’s construction, which is expected to cost $80 million to $100 million, depending on the final design.

The city has decided Sullivan Square will be overhauled as previously approved and that three traffic lights—at Baldwin Street, Essex Street, and Bunker Hill Community College—will be included in any final design.

The sticking point now is whether the Austin Street intersection near the community college should be brought to grade or if its underpass should be rebuilt.

A surface design would create two through lanes in each direction on Rutherford Avenue with dedicated turning lanes at the intersection, including two left turn lanes from the Gilmore Bridge to Rutherford. It would shift the road away from the neighborhood, creating a 50-foot buffer zone that will be used to create 40 feet of open space and 130 parking spaces. It would reduce the crossing distance for pedestrians to 90 feet from 210 feet.

An underpass design would reduce the number of underpass lanes from a total of six to a total of four, or two in each direction. It would also shift the road, creating a green space buffer zone of 22 feet, but no parking within 1,000 feet of the intersection. The crossing distance for pedestrians would be reduced to 140 feet from 210 feet.

City officials and designers say that both plans are pedestrian friendly, provide paths for bicyclists, and can accommodate current and future traffic demands.

Proponents of each design reiterated their points for and against each plan, but many comments during two-hour meeting came from residents on either side of the debate calling on the city to take action to improve the road and called on each other to work together to make sure it happens.

City Councillor Sal LaMattina asked residents to work together to come up with a plan to make sure the project can start.

“It’s a nightmare,” LaMattina said, referring to Sullivan Square. “It’s a nightmare that needs to be addressed. It’s a nightmare for everybody that lives in this community. …We need to do something.”

Tinlin said the city must now consider all of the information and feedback they have received to make a decision on a final design that betters the neighborhood as a whole.

“What that looks like today, I honestly can’t tell you. I really can’t,” Tinlin told the crowd.
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