The design for Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square has brought in a new wrinkle in that it has begun to adopt some aspects of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) service – potentially in the center lane along the corridor and connecting to northern cities like Everett and Malden with the aim to move people into Boston fast and without cars.
On Tuesday, the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) project lead Bill Conroy and Consultant Eric Mackey presented the latest 25 percent design of the corridor to the public at the Father Daniel Mahoney Hall in the Knights of Columbus. The design was recently submitted, and several changes have now taken place in the Sullivan Square area, with the BRT aspect now being injected into the plan to match ideas being implemented in Everett.
“We’re talking about making a change to the underpass to have it be a three-lane underpass,” said Mackey. “That would accommodate a bus lane on the right side or potentially in the center…There could be a future desire to get a BRT bus stop to service the neighborhood and the playground. It would be the last stop before leaving for Everett.”
BRT is a new concept in the Charlestown plan, but the Rutherford/Sullivan Square corridor is key to a regional plan championed by Everett and several transportation consultants – with the design to get a fast one-seat ride from the Malden border and into North Station.
Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria has been championing the idea as a way to get commuter traffic off of his main streets and those in Charlestown as well. Working with consultants on what he has termed a “Gold Standard BRT” service, sources have said he and other consultants recently met with Mayor Martin Walsh – who seemingly has embraced the idea. BRT ideally would feature center-lane travel and center lane stations that move outside the traditional MBTA service. They would use separated lanes from traffic, and also technology to be able to change traffic lights so the bus doesn’t have to stop. In Everett, that technology has already been introduced, as well as the dedicated bus lane, and has proven to save a great deal of time for commuters. Likewise, Boston has also ventured into that realm with the new dedicated bus lane from the North Washington Street Bridge to Haymarket.
In Charlestown, there could be two BRT stops along the corridor – one at Alford Street near Ryan Playground, and another further down on Rutherford Avenue adjacent near Baldwin Street.
“There is a possibility of a center running BRT bus with the center lane for the bus,” said Mackey. “The center lane would be nice.”
Meanwhile, BTD veteran Bill Conroy has taken over the project since the retirement of long-time BTD employee Jim Gillooly. Conroy said the mayor and the BTD want to push the project even ahead of the 2022 target date by the federal government funders – known as the MPO.
“We did have a meeting with the feds two or three weeks ago and we showed them the design and they were happy with it,” said Conroy. “That’s good. You don’t want them to say ‘no’ because you have to go back to square one…We should have a full design submitted to Mass DOT very soon. That would trigger a public hearing that should come in February. We want to push more on the design, and we will do that. I want to be at 75 percent design by summer 2020. I want to be at 100 percent design by winter 2020. This project is not scheduled for the MPO until 2022. We want to get some early action items by March 2021…We want to be aggressive with this and get the project out there built sooner than later.”
The construction timeline now is showing the project to start in March/April 2021, with a five-year construction period.
The basics of the design have not changed along the corridor really, with three new intersections that have stoplights to prevent a speedway effect. The “road diet” on the corridor would produce three lanes southbound and two northbound, with the introduction of a landscaped walking path, a two-way bike track and a large buffer from the road. A new pedestrian bridge at Austin Street would be constructed in place of the other one, using modern guidelines and widening it from eight feet to 12 feet.
At Sullivan Square, there are new changes in the mix.
After finding that there are some huge utility easements (such as a 345 kV electric line) abutting the existing underpass, they have decided to keep the configuration and eliminate the signalized intersection for vehicles coming out of the tunnel. Instead, a merge would be used for surface and underpass traffic at that location.
“The underpass is enormous – 15 feet thick,” said Mackey. “It was a built like a tank and for us to take it and bend it like we though would end up with a mini-Big Dig over here. It would be costly and difficult.”
Instead, they have decked over more of the underpass to create a larger amount of space on the surface. This has allowed them to create three buildable lots toward Sullivan Station and a new Charlestown Common near the center of the existing circle – with the circle being eliminated for two large intersections. More parkland would be added next to Ryan Playground as well, providing more of a buffer and increasing the overall open space in the Square.
The key problem right now is how to cross Alford Street near the entrance to the underpasses – just after the Alford Street Bridge. Right now, the design calls for three difficult cross walks with hybrid signals – a situation that even the designers don’t like.
“This is a problem in the design and it’s why we’re here tonight,” said Conroy. “We have to come up with something better.”
•Meanwhile, a good contingent in the audience was pining for the older ‘Surface Option’ plan that eliminated the underpass.
Dan Kovacevic was irate that the plan contained the underpass.
“You’re trying to salvage a failing idea for a tunnel that’s of no use to anybody,” he said. “You shouldn’t salvage an antique piece of junk that should be buried and forgotten.”
A great deal of time was spent on that line of thinking, but Conroy eventually shut it down, saying that is no longer being debated. The underpass is part of the plan and that it has been decided.
Others who have followed the process closely, like abutter Dan Jaffe, said the design was better.
“This is a much better design,” he said.
•In a neighborhood note, it has recently been pointed out repeatedly that most people are saying ‘Rutherford’ incorrectly. Many in the Town have stressed that it should be pronounced like the name ‘Ruth.’ Just say ‘Ruth,’ and then add the ‘erford.’ There you have it.