By Seth Daniel
Numerous ideas and “preferred suggestions” highlighted the first part of the Lower Mystic Regional Working Group’s unveiling of ideas about how to transform transportation in the region that includes Everett, Somerville and Charlestown – a region mired in traffic and ignored by transportation planners for decades.
“It really is the intersection of Boston, Everett and Somerville, and this has been a good example of those three communities really coming together to promote a major change,” said Tim Reardon of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC).
Monday night’s meeting drew about 75 people from the three communities – most coming from Charlestown – and unveiled the results of about a year of planning, community meetings and stakeholder meetings between the three communities and a whole host of state and municipal entities – not to mention private companies like Wynn Boston Harbor and Federal Development (Assembly Row). The meeting took place at the new Partners Health Care building in Assembly Row, and premiered some initial ideas about long-term changes to the region to help traffic and congestion – ideas that focus mostly on getting people out of cars and directing them away from the existing bottlenecks.
Two of the key suggestions for Charlestown were ramps on and off of I-93 – something that has been discussed for years.
Kind of a no-brainer for the Town is the suggestion to re-institute the northbound onramp to I-93 at City Square. Currently, an onramp exists at City Square with a cloverleaf that empties to I-93 southbound and the Leverett Connector. The northbound onramp there once existed, and a spur still is in place, but due to restrictions at the time of the Big Dig, it could not be replaced.
Now, that has changed, explained Mark Abbott of the Central Transportation Planning staff. Restrictions previously prevented the ramp because it was too close to the I-93 Cambridge Street exit. Now, those restrictions have been relaxed, and planners believe it can be replaced.
That would be a major boost, many believe, to keeping pass through interstate traffic off of Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square.
“That will help those trying to get to the north and west neighborhoods,” he said. “We believe it will relieve traffic on Rutherford Avenue by getting people trying to get on 93 North off of that corridor.”
A second ramp proposal would split the Cambridge Street exit, with one spur continuing to the bottom, and another new spur splitting off as a flyover that would take drivers over Sullivan Square and empty out just before the Alford Street Bridge. It is believed that would also relieve unnecessary congestion on Sullivan Square by allowing people headed to Lower Broadway Everett a more direct path.
A third automobile-related suggestion was eliminating the underutilized HOV lane on I-93 southbound, which planners said is not heavily utilized by commuters and could allow for an additional 1,500 vehicles in the morning rush – perhaps breaking down some gridlock that now exists.
A lot of the suggestions, however, dealt more with improving transit, as Reardon said planners couldn’t expect people to get out of their cars without providing better transit options.
Some of those improvements included proposed new bus rapid transit lines (Silver Line) and an exciting – though maybe not financially feasible – new spur of the Orange Line that would travel through Everett and end in Revere.
The exciting Orange Line news was the first time that it had been discussed publicly, and the Lower Mystic planners said that the new spur would start at Sullivan Square, break off at the Mystic River and run through Everett to Revere’s Copeland Circle – where an extensive Park and Ride facility would exist for commuters. That would simultaneously get more Everett people on public transit and get more northern commuters off the streets of Everett and Charlestown.
The spur would go over the Mystic River and then follow the commuter rail right of way near Lower Broadway and over to Route 16. From there, it would dive into a tunnel that would take the spur through Everett to Copeland Circle. In Everett, that expansion would include five new stations in the tunnel section.
“It is a very expensive option,” said Mark Abbott of the Central Transportation Planning staff. “There are new tunnels and the cost of five new stations, plus we will need a new maintenance facility. There are also impacts on property as well.”
One interesting new twist for Charlestown was the introduction of a private Charlestown Shuttle that would run from the Navy Yard to Kendall Square. The route would start in the Navy Yard and pass by Spaulding and to Medford Street, circle Mystic and Green Streets and into Thompson Square. There, it would pass over the bridge to Lechmere and into Kendall. That route does not exist now and could be a key connector to jobs in the explosive Kendall area.
Other suggestions are expansions of the Silver Line bus rapid transit (BRT) – which is currently being expanded from Logan Airport to the Chelsea Market Basket mall area.
One of those expansions would be connecting a new Silver Line to the Market Basket area that would proceed to Broadway and then to Sullivan Square. From there it would go to the Inner Beltway and finish up at Kendall Square.
That is piggybacked with another Silver Line route that would start at Glendale Square in Everett and travel down the existing bus-only lane on Broadway, connecting with Lower Broadway, Rutherford Avenue in Charlestown and ending at North Station.
“That’s a one-seat ride where they would have to utilize multiple buses today,” said Abbott.
Reardon said a lot of the suggestions have little to do with building more highways and roads, but rather steering people away from using their cars. That’s because with every computer modeling the group did, they couldn’t eliminate congestion.
“In every model when we tried to relieve congestion, traffic comes in and fills up what we’ve relieved,” said Reardon. “It backfills. It’s very, very difficult to build our way out of the congestion. That’s why we’re focusing on what the other alternatives are…No matter what we tried to relieve the congestion, we had a hard time making headway. We wanted to figure out how to get people out of their cars instead.”
Charlestown residents, such as Mary Boucher, were a bit skeptical of that overall mindset – noting that very little relief could be seen in the study documents of how the suggestions would help.
“I’m looking at all of the slides here and I don’t see any improvement on the congestion in Charlestown,” said Boucher.
After a brief geography lesson for the planners on the reason why Charlestown should not be called Boston, Elaine Donovan said the alternative options like bicycling cannot be fully relied upon all year long. Also, she said that while a regional approach is necessary, Charlestown is the most effected and should be weighted as such.
“For five months of the year you can’t walk or bike and you need a car,” she said. “This will work great in the warmer months, but in the winters we could see that it’s just not an option. I have a lot of concerns…This might effect Everett and Revere, but I’m on Sullivan Square four times a day and this is a situation that is a thorn in our side on a daily basis. You cannot go up Bunker Hill Street, Main Street or Medford Street after 4 p.m…. We are the ones directly affected.”
Others from Charlestown were concerned about the City of Boston’s portion of the planning, which is the decision on how to build out improvements to the Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square areas. Currently, the City has decided upon a hybrid approach using smaller tunnels and surface roads. Members of the Rutherford Corridor Improvement Coalition (RCIC) were on hand to voice their concerns about the regional plan and its reliance on the City’s hybrid option.
“Fundamental to this is that the local roads have to be a partner with this plan,” said Monica Lamboy. “The Underpass option Boston identified is not a partner in promoting pedestrian and bike safety.”
Reardon assured that the regional suggestions now and in the future would be able to work with whatever plans Boston decides to build out on the Rutherford Corridor.
“The suggestions on our alternatives will still be valid with whatever the City of Boston decides,” he said.
The Lower Mystic Regional Working Group was created when the Wynn Boston Harbor development got its environmental approvals. In order to improve traffic regionally, regulators asked the state Department of Transportation to convene a working group to make suggestions about how to improve the corridor long term – a corridor that includes Everett, Somerville and Charlestown, and also spreads out in a study area to include Revere, Chelsea, Medford and Arlington.
The suggestions at Monday’s meeting were the culmination of nearly two years of work and meetings, with the public portion of the planning beginning last fall.
Final recommendations will come later this year after more public input, and that will be followed with an exercise to identify funding strategies for the many costly options that are proposed.