Transportation to Move Forward With Sullivan Square Underpasses

By Seth Daniel

In a standing room only meeting in the Knights of Columbus on May 18, the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) announced that it intended to move forward on the long-term Sullivan Square traffic plan with the continued use of underpasses rather than pursue a surface-only option.

The scene was electric last Thursday night, with surface road advocates out in force handing out stickers and packing the hall. Those preferring the hybrid underpass plan also came out in big numbers, meaning that – once again – the two ideas were set to collide at a public meeting.

It was a movie everyone had seen before, in 2009 and at least one time before as well, but this time the stakes were quite a bit higher as monumental developments on all sides of the Town beckon traffic – places like the Wynn Boston Harbor casino now under construction on the other side of Sullivan Square in Everett.

In the last several months, what the plans had come down to is a hybrid plan using surface roads and two smaller underpasses (Austin Street and Sullivan Square) versus an older plan (2009) that filled in the underpass and instituted a system of surface streets.

At the May 18 meeting, though, it was time for the talk to end and a decision to be made, and BTD official Jim Gillooly and consultant Erik Mackey said the City would be moving forward with some form of the hybrid underpass plan – a key piece of planning for the overall Lower Mystic Regional Working Group.

“We think it’s important to keep the benefits of the underpass for pedestrians and public transit above, but also let’s look at the design,” Mackey said. “This was done in the 1950s. Let’s make the slope to the underpass more steep (to take up less room) like we have in other places…In general, it comes down to a math problem. If you have more cars trying to get through an intersection, it’s going to take more time.”

Mackey explained that the traffic numbers showed around 26,000 vehicles using the current underpass, and by keeping those – as well as the increasing volumes coming due to Wynn and other developments – under the new surface roads, conditions for pedestrians and drivers up top would improve.

He showed slides that explained their studies showed that keeping the underpass improved the miles traveled and wait times (in seconds) significantly. In some cases, wait times were reduced by 50 percent, he said.

Some in the Charlestown crowd did not care for that determination, and challenged the numbers and the decision. A large crowd of ‘Surface Option’ folks attended the meeting, and in the end City officials said they would be going with the underpass despite the vocal opposition – which at times resorted to some modest heckling of the presenters.

Some in the crowd for the Surface Option, championed by the Rutherford Corridor Improvement Coalition (RCIC) did not agree with the decision, and voiced their opposition to the decision and the process.

“I and other members of the RCIC feel that more information is required in order to assess whether the underpass option presented by the City at the public meeting on May 18th truly provides all of the benefits that were promised in terms of connectivity, bicycle and pedestrian safety, a sensible street grid, open space, resiliency and access to transit,” said Nathan Blanchet. “The RCIC has asked BTD to provide PDFs of the proposed plans for the full corridor – those included in the presentation were presented piecemeal and were difficult to read and understand. I look forward to BTD making these plans available so community members can come to their own conclusions about what the City is proposing.”

Others said they felt the decision was heavy-handed.

“It seems that the City’s intent since the ‘re-start’ last Fall has been to reverse the community’s previous decision by any means necessary,” said David Yashar. “The City’s presentation on May 18th felt like a sales pitch – the presentation included slide after slide of confusing and difficult-to-read traffic numbers that seemed intended to play on community concerns about traffic rather than to provide helpful information.”

However, Gillooly and Mackey defended the plan, noting that study after study showed that despite losing some open space and some space for development, the hybrid underpass plan would improve the corridor long-term by keeping pass through traffic below grade and off the streets of Charlestown.

Gillooly said it was going to be a new kind of underpass, and not the hulking thoroughfare that’s there now.

“They are not your grandfather’s underpasses,” he said. “These will be dramatically different…and will be designed to promote safer and slower movements in the corridor.”

The plan calls for one-lane underpasses in either direction, potentially with a stoplight that would be stationed when cars emerge from underground headed towards Everett in order to access Arlington Street and potential developable property at the MBTA facility.

The Rutherford Avenue corridor at Sullivan Square would have three southbound lanes and two northbound lanes.

The underpass at Austin Street on Rutherford Avenue would have two southbound lanes and one northbound lane – as opposed to the three and three configuration now.

This would be punctuated by at least three new intersections with traffic signals on the corridor – one at Bunker Hill Community College, one at Mishawum and one at Essex Street. Another might be added at Baldwin Street also. These, they believe, will help movement from the businesses and community college and prevent cars from having to go to Sullivan Square.

Another critical part of the plan is an expansive bike path and linear park along the northern side of the corridor, a park created by moving the corridor further away from the neighborhood to create a new buffer. A dedicated bus lane is also in the plan and comes into play just after the Mystic/Tobin Bridge intersection and continues across the new North Washington Street Bridge.

One major change to the plan from the previous meeting in February, where the hybrid plan was unveiled, was a direct shot from Maffa Way into Main Street. That, Mackey said, proved to be very unpopular.

“We heard very clearly that people didn’t want that movement directly onto Main Street,” he said.

Another key element will be the movement out of the northbound underpass, which includes access to Arlington Street and the MBTA bus facility – a property that many believe to be prime property for future private development. Having a key access point drawn in now will help to develop that northern most side of Charlestown, which is now seen as highly underutilized.

In a previous meeting, Gillooly said they need to be able to tell the regional planners the direction that Sullivan Square was going with its design by June so as to secure key federal dollars that have been reserved for some form of the project.

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