(Massachusetts Department of Transportation)
By the end of February, the state transportation department expects to announce a final verdict to a key question for many Boston residents, drivers, cyclists and pedestrians: What should replace the old Monsignor William J. Casey Overpass that carries Route 203 over the Forest Hills MBTA station?
When it was built 58 years ago, the 20-span, 1,650-foot-long, 80-foot-wide bridge was designed to carry four lanes of traffic. Citing its structural deficiency, the state plans to soon knock down and replace the aged-beyond-repair overpass that now has sidewalks along either edge and since fall 2010 has been reduced to two lanes, one in either direction, out of safety concerns.
Over the past 11 months, a state-selected advisory group to oversee the project’s design process has met a dozen times in addition to five public hearings and a host of neighborhood sponsored meetings that drew sizable crowds and a range of ideas through a process that has narrowed the options to two proposals – another bridge, estimated to cost $74 million or a surface-level roadway expected to cost $53 million.
Supporters of the surface option, including bicycling advocates, say removing the bridge and creating an "at grade" intersection would move traffic nearly as well as a bridge and also would allow for more connectivity, green space and improvements to the Forest Hills Orange Line station.
Those in support of a new bridge argue the bridge would allow slightly faster travel and will be used primarily by long-distance commuters causing less congestion for local commuters. They also argue a new bridge could be an attractive addition to the area.
Both options are expected to improve traffic conditions to about the same level of speed for local trips and projected to take about 36 months to build, the state says. A bridge would be speedier for regional trips by between 30 and 90 seconds at rush hour.
Replacing the overpass faces time constraints, according to state officials. Namely, they say that the replacement must start by mid-2013 so it can be built before the program that will fund the project expires in mid-2016. Another cause for urgency: the existing bridge that 24,000 vehicles pass over daily, “is safe for vehicular travel, however we do not know how much longer it will be able to carry traffic,” the state’s top transportation official said in a recent letter. “The bridge is at the end of its serviceable life.”
The state originally planned to announce the selection between the two options more than two months ago, shortly after the last public meeting was held in late November.
But, the decision has been stalled by a group of concerned residents, advocacy groups and local politicians led by State Rep. Elizabeth Malia, a Democrat from Jamaica Plain, and U.S. Congressman Michael E. Capuano, a Democrat from Somerville, who say that data is missing from the state’s assessment of future traffic for the two scenarios. Choosing either option without complete information would be irresponsible, they said.
However, the state denies the claim that its traffic analysis has holes.
“There were no missing or incomplete data,” said an e-mail from state transportation department spokesman Michael Verseckes. He said the delay will not delay the replacement process’ overall progress nor will it add costs.
The spokesman forwarded a copy of a letter state transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey sent last week to Malia and Capuano. In the correspondence, Davey addresses concerns the two elected officials and others had raised in a Jan. 6 letter, following a series of three meetings the state held with the concerned parties at their request.
“We reviewed their concerns and have incorporated several of their suggestions into the plans as many of their ideas were common to either alternative,” wrote Davey, noting particularly that the state has had the information analyzed by an independent traffic consultant.
“While we have identified minor adjustments and clarifications that may be necessary, the traffic analysis provided for the Casey Overpass Project has been performed in a professional manner consistent with standard traffic engineering practices and the guidelines of the MassDOT 2006 Project Development and Design guidebook,” the transportation secretary continued. “Our recommendations to provide additional analysis summaries are solely to further illustrate that traffic operations will be more efficient in the future with either alternative than the existing conditions or no-build conditions.”
But, this week, Rep. Malia said that she and others remain unconvinced that the state’s traffic forecast is accurate and said Davey’s response letter “raises even more questions.”
Community members, including a local traffic engineer who conducted his own study, “found some serious flaws in both their methodology in collecting data and [the state study’s] outcome,” she said.
“The DOT tells us that either plan will improve traffic. Well, I used to believe in Santa Claus, too, but I got more information and things changed,” said Malia. “I don’t understand how you put 12 ounces in a six-ounce glass.”
She credited state officials to listening to their concerns and reworking some of the state’s traffic analysis. But, she said she and others are skeptical of the public process the state has gone through over the past year.
“It seems to have had a foregone conclusion [that the state will select the at-grade option] and it doesn’t seem to answer a lot of the community’s questions and concerns,” Malia said.
The state transportation spokesman said this week that neither option has been selected yet and the state has not picked a date to make an announcement, though officials plan to make a decision and announcement “soon.”
“The potential impact this has in making a decision based on faulty data just doesn’t cut it as a responsible public process,” Malia said, adding that she has plans to meet with Davey again next week “I’m hoping we get some answers to these questions before they make a decision.”
Malia said both she also does not believe the state transportation officials who have said funding for the project will be unavailable after mid-2016. She is exploring options that could allow the project to ensure funding if it is extended.
The project is planned to be paid for through the state’s Accelerated Bridge Program, which was created in spring 2008 to work toward repairing or replacing 543 structurally-deficient Massachusetts bridges – 11 percent of the total number of bridges statewide.
“As written, the Accelerated Bridge Program is an eight-year, $3 billion program; 2016 is when the program is currently scheduled to end,” state transportation spokesman Verseckes said, when asked if an extension of the program would be possible.
But, Malia said, “I don’t believe that’s the case. From what I’ve been able to find out, there is no drop-dead date after 2016.”
“I’m not advocating that we put it off,” she added. “It’s a major transit hub. Whatever the outcome here is, it’s going to have a huge impact on people here with major traffic concerns … I’m willing to look at any option. Some people have tried to pit this as at-grade versus bridge, but we don’t have the information to make that decision yet. I hope we can reopen the discussion with this new data included”
The state says it has found no clear consensus favoring either option.
“It's tough to gauge this,” Verseckes said in an e-mail. “The community has played an important, integral part in the review of both alternatives. The Working Advisory Group has been a group that has been focused and interested and has brought a high level of critical thinking to both scenarios. It doesn't exactly boil down to a percentage split - the WAG members have really followed this process closely and have become quite educated on both and can really drill down into the details of both alternatives.”
Either way, he said, there is more work to be done with area streets.
“As far as a clear favorite - in either scenario, the bottom line is the network of surface streets is going to be redesigned to simplify the area, improve the geometry of intersections, and modernize roads to accommodate more modes of transportation (principally pedestrian and cycling),” the transportation spokesman said. “The selection of either a bridge or an at-grade solution has attracted a lot of attention, which has taken some of the focus away from our other goal of improving that network of streets in this area - regardless of the option that is selected.”
For more information about the replacement project's public process, click here.
E-mail Matt Rocheleau at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Massachusetts Department of Transportation)