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City pushes ahead with plan to raze Rutherford Ave. underpasses in long-planned redesign

Posted by Johanna Kaiser  March 18, 2013 12:17 PM

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After years of debate and deliberation, the city is pushing ahead with plans to transform Charlestown’s Rutherford Avenue from an aging highway into a tree-lined urban boulevard.

The Boston Transportation Department has announced it will proceed with plans for what is known as the “surface option” redesign.

This redesign of the road wll 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.

Three traffic lights would be added at Baldwin Street, Essex Street, and Bunker Hill Community College.

In addition to eliminating the underpasses at Austin Street and Sullivan Square, the new design will also create new parcels for new housing at Sullivan Square; connect the Mystic River waterfront to the Charles River; and extend Spice Street to Rutherford Avenue allowing Cambridge Street traffic to bypass the rotary.

Officials say there will be enough traffic lanes to continue to provide for smooth traffic flow and protect Charlestown from cut-through traffic. The redesign will also make the road more accessible to pedestrians, cyclists, and those going to the MBTA stations.

“In partnership with the Charlestown community, we’re working to transform Rutherford Avenue from a highway to a neighborhood-friendly, urban boulevard,” Mayor Thomas M. Menino said in a statement on Tuesday. “Residents will be able to take advantage of new connections to the MBTA Orange Line, new green space for children to play, and safe access to the Charles River. The new Rutherford Avenue will offer these and countless other opportunities to enhance quality of life for the people of Charlestown.”

The city was also considering an underpass design that would have reduced the number of underpass lanes from a total of six to a total of four, or two in each direction. It would have 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.

This plan also included the three stoplights and both designs were aimed at making the road more accessible while accommodating traffic demands.

The decision comes after nearly five years of debate among neighborhood residents, ten community meetings and 20 briefings with community groups, elected officials and advocacy groups.

The city began its efforts to transform Rutherford Avenue into an urban boulevard 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 plan met opposition from residents who questioned the traffic studies and growth projections, and worried traffic lights will clog the road and neighborhood streets with stop-and-go traffic.

Those concerns prompted additional meetings and a longer review process.

“BTD appreciates the input and assistance that we have received from local residents and elected officials on this project,” the city’s transportation commissioner Thomas J. Tinlin said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our work with them through the final design process and the completion of construction on the new Rutherford Avenue.”

The concept design was founded by the city and the Transportation Department is now working to secure $11.5 million in federal funding that has been earmarked for the final design and environmental review.

The final design review must still go through a community process that the city expects to begin later this year.

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