By Seth Daniel
As opposite sides have dug in on the either/or underpass versus surface option debate on Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square, the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) seems to be driving a vehicle of compromise to the Town.
The newest plans for the Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square corridor won’t look anything like what is there today, but BTD officials hinted at a meeting last week that there is likely to be a compromise of existing plans – where a surface deck exists and a tunnel/underpass system also exists.
Jim Gillooly of the BTD said at a meeting of the Lower Mystic Regional Working Group on Thursday, Feb. 2, that the City would return to Charlestown for a meeting on Feb. 28, and plans circulated there would likely show a compromise of positions.
For the longest time, the contentious discussion about the plans for the corridor have pitted those who want an underpass against those who don’t want an underpass – and it has even attracted the attention of Congressman Michael Capuano, who has indicated his preference of an underpass. However, now it appears that after several planning meetings in the neighborhood since last June, the BTD might have worked up a compromise plan.
Gillooly said the Feb. 28 meeting would give a peek at a potential plan that would include smaller tunnels that go under Austin Street and Sullivan Square. Above those tunnels would be surface decks with the new street grids, similar to what had been proposed in the surface option to begin to connect mainland Charlestown with the “other side” by the Hood Plant and Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC).
“It’s not likely going to be a one or the other situation with the underpass and surface option, but something that builds off of one another – a hybrid,” he said. “Just because a plan keeps the underpasses doesn’t mean it would be what you see out there today. It would still have a street grid at Sullivan Square. It’s whether it works better with an underpass to get the people who don’t want to come to Charlestown through the area…Despite all the good intentions of the surface plan, there are some deficiencies.”
Gillooly said the current underpass system, at Austin Street especially, is way overbuilt.
“There is a six-lane underpass at Austin,” he said. “That’s way overcapacity for what we need. It was over capacity when it was built. It will be overcapacity in the future. Any underpass we contemplate wouldn’t be that large…We would want to work it to accommodate everything now and into the future if we build an underpass. We don’t want to build it for today, but we would want to build it for the needs of a little bit into the future.”
Gillooly and the BTD began the new process in June of last year when it became apparent the surface plan – which was crafted long before the Wynn Boston Harbor casino and Assembly Row projects had been fully unveiled – couldn’t work as planned. He said a process had to begin again where the community and the City came back together to talk about the corridor and include all of the new developments – including the potential One Charlestown project – in the discussion.
One of the potential problems, he said, with eliminating the underpass is that it will create the same situation that begat the underpass in the first place. Years ago, the underpass came to be because commuters leaving downtown Boston were clogging up Main Street and Medford Street in the Town.
Gillooly said they fear such a situation could repeat itself if the surface streets offer commuters the only option of getting out of Boston.
“There are a lot more streets on the surface plan and an awful lot of traffic lights,” he said. “If everyone under is going above and stopping at those lights, you’re adding a layer of traffic that has to be navigating the new multiple streets and multiple traffic signals…We would like to be able to separate the neighborhood people from those passing through.”
Meanwhile, he said they have contemplated how to make the smaller tunnels work in concert with the surface roads. He said they have analyzed, and like, the way that Purchase Street interacts with the Greenway surface road as it emerges from the I-93 O’Neill Tunnel.
“On Purchase Street, there is a light and the surface road get to go and then the ramp gets to go,” he said. “It’s not like Logan Airport where everything is going everywhere.”
In any case, he said they are excited about the initial plans that have come from multiple community meetings over the past year, and he said it would certainly give birth to something totally new that BTD believes will work for everyone.
“The experience would be like nothing that is out there today,” he said.