By Seth Daniel
One thing was readily apparent as the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) laid out two voluminous options for the community to digest regarding Sullivan Square and Rutherford Avenue redesigns Tuesday night, Feb. 28, and the realization being the Town is at a crossroads.
Or rather, an intersection.
Two competing proposals were on the table, and despite strong opinions on both sides, either option is poised to change the Town in ways – from transportation to new development to access – that will stretch potentially as far as 100 years from now.
“We have only one chance to do this, so we need to do it right; this is going to be here for a long, long time,” said one resident, who was actually advocating for a tunnel plan not even under consideration.
But his point was well taken.
It is a defining moment in the Town that will affect the future for a long time.
The meeting was one in a series of meetings that has addressed a BTD redesign of the corridor from the North Washington Street Bridge to the far end of Sullivan Square. It is a process that is a re-start from similar meetings held four years ago, where a decision to get rid of the underpasses were made, but before much of the surrounding development like the Wynn casino exploded on the perimeters of the Town. Two meetings previously in the new process took place in June and October 2016.
Tuesday’s meeting, however, brought to the table comprehensive plans about the lynchpin of the project – redesigning and getting rid of the Sullivan Square circle and changing traffic flow of Rutherford Avenue.
The major decision to be made, and for which input is being sought, is regarding the idea of keeping the underpasses at Austin Street and under Sullivan – though proposals have those underpasses in much smaller configurations of about one lane in each direction.
The big unveiling from BTD’s Jim Gillooly and Tetra Tech’s Erik Maki, however, was a compromise system at Sullivan Square that got rid of the circle, retained a tunnel underneath going to Everett with one lane in either direction, and created a surface City street grid pattern with decking above the tunnel- decking that would allow for large new development parcels and open space. However, the new parcels and open space would not be quite as large as in the surface option.
Maki said there are about 100,000 vehicle trips going through the Square per day, an “enormous” number, and he and Gillooly said having a tunnel keeps 26,000 vehicles per day off of the new grid system above. However, the tradeoffs of losing some open space and developable parcels has to be considered.
“We going to give a lot of soul searching to whether an underpass at Sullivan Square improves lives or does it complicate lives,” said Gillooly.
“There are compelling stories on both options and we’re trying to balance a huge number of objectives,” said Maki. “It’s difficult to think that a street so close to homes carries regional traffic, but it does. We’re not trying to open the floodgates, but we’re trying to address that.”
Those in the audience had competing visions as well.
Resident Bill Lamb advocated for the surface design.
“I thought the surface design was working pretty well,” he said.
Meanwhile, John Dillon preferred the underpass.
“Sullivan Square could not handle 26,000 vehicles on the surface,” he said. “No matter how clean the surface option is, Sullivan Square could not handle it. Underpass.”
Both views were represented in the room, and that’s been the same for 20 years or more. However, there was a sense of many warming up to the detailed and though-out plans being presented.
The potential new tunnel configuration at Sullivan and Austin would be at a steeper grade, going down and up at 6 percent grade rather than the existing 4 percent. That would create a lot more surface space on the lead up at Rutherford to the potential tunnel at Sullivan. The proposal for the Surface option doesn’t need to rely on grades, but contains the same plan for Rutherford as the Tunnel option.
That plan is a little more controversial, as it has five stoplights from Austin Street to the Square that provide cross streets over the Avenue and direct access in and out of Hood, the Industrial Park and Bunker Hill Community College – eliminating the need to make U-turns at Austin Street and Mishawum Street or to venture into the Square unnecessarily.
There was a good response to that plan, as many have called for the cross streets to the “other side” of Charlestown. However, a good many people felt five cross streets with five lights might create a traffic slowdown of epic proportions.
Malik and Gillooly highlighted the light that would be stationed at the entrance and exit of the potential Sullivan Square tunnel – noting that it was meant to work like Purchase Street in downtown Boston and to slow down traffic.
“The image that the driver in the underpass is going to use this as a speedway and you duck under and hit the gas will change,” said Malik. “This is a plan where you bring your speed down to what the City wants.”
A common element in both plans was really well received by all parties, and that was the Northern Gateway design that created a straight run from Maffa Way and Mystic Avenue in Somerville all the way to Rutherford Avenue. However, it also allowed for a separate local connector where traffic going to Bunker Hill Street in Charlestown or up to Everett could veer off of the Gateway and make the local connections.
That new connector and the larger Gateway street would be interspersed with large amounts of developable land that the City said it’s contemplating to be used for open space and transit-oriented developments. The streets would be complete streets with sidewalks, well-outlined pedestrian crossings, bike lanes and other amenities. All of it would also bring much better connection and flow to accessing the Sullivan Square Station.
Other highlights include:
- Making access in and out of Ryan Playground whereby residents would no longer have to go to Everett and turn around or make the dangerous 100-foot “backup” on Alford Street to get back to the circle. The new plan contains a way for those using the parking lot to get in and out easily and without the current restrictions.
- A separated bike lane with two lanes going in opposite directions is laid out on the northern side of Sullivan Square and all the way through Rutherford Avenue. It is seen as something that would connect with the existing bike path that operates in Everett and Malden and connects at the casino.
- A dedicated MBTA bus lane is contemplated the length of Rutherford Avenue inbound and from the North Washington Street Bridge to the Tobin Bridge onramp.
One key piece, Gillooly said, is funding and meeting a June deadline for having a community decision. He said the project is the top priority for the metropolitan planners in the Boston area, and $175 million in federal funding it due to be released in 2020. Another $25 million will come from the Wynn casino when it opens its doors in 2019. Other resources might also be available. That, however, is contingent upon the design process and community process continuing to run and to not hit any snags.
“We have federal and state funding that will become available in 2020, so we have three and a half years to get this plan fully developed so it can be advanced,” Gillooly said. “This June, we need to have a basic decision by the City on what we’re going to do…One thing we want to do is meet that deadline. It’s not common to get this $175 million we’ve secured through federal and state sources…It can’t (be used) for other projects as long as we keep our momentum going and not trip over our own two feet and then not have a design ready by 2020. That’s important.” The full presentation given on the City’s website at: https://www.boston.gov/departments/transportation/rutherford-avenue-sullivan-square-design-project