Rutherford/Sullivan Project Affirmed as Priority, Bus BRT Aspects Left to the Future

There has always been a bit of shifting sand under the long-discussed Sullivan Square/Rutherford Avenue Reconstruction project, but a milestone 25 percent design meeting late last month seemed to have a little more solid ground and momentum underneath it – despite disappointing some regional Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) advocates by leaving out a center-lane BRT service that would run down Rutherford Avenue.

The massive project faces a narrow window of opportunity, MassDOT officials said, in the year 2023 to get started. The project costs $177 million, with the federal government paying for 80 percent and the state paying for 20 percent.

“To advertise the project for the summer, we need to have environmental permits and right-of-way easements done by the first quarter of 2023,” said Alwin Ramirez of MassDOT.

Bill Conroy, project manager for Boston Transportation Department (BTD), said the project is at the threshold with 25 percent design.

“This public hearing signifies a significant milestone of the project, which is at the threshold of being built,” he said. “The project will create a new gateway into Charlestown…There are some who have advocated for BRT elements, and there is not full BRT in this plan. We are not precluding it as part of the future though…This is a project for the residents of Charlestown.”

Eric Maki, lead designer from TetraTech, said the project is massive, 1.5 miles from City Square to Sullivan Square and to the Somerville line. He and others said the major focus of the project now is safety for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. They plan to make things safer by looking at new traffic data and “right sizing the road.” Part of that is noting that 75 percent of the traffic on the corridor uses the southbound lane, while only 25 percent uses the northbound lane – noting that the road design has reflected that.

“That’s helped us inform our design when we do our road diet,” he said. “The overall plan is to right-size the road. We want to shrink the roadway as much as we can, but still be able to handle regional traffic.”

A key thing for residents is having two separated bicycle paths the full length of the project, one in either direction. That also leads into a massive amount of new open space in a green corridor system of about three acres that means to tie into renovations at Ryan Playground and the establishment of the Hood Green – as well as other potential open spaces on the corridor.

At City Square, the design squeezes the I-93 ramp and expands pedestrian space, and a new pedestrian crossing at the Tobin ramp, as well as a potential City-owned land addition for a new pedestrian connection from Lynde Street.

At Austin Street, six lanes of traffic will be whittled down to three, and there will be a shift of the road over for more sidewalk and open space. There will also be a new pedestrian bridge over the road that is wider and ADA accessible, unlike the current bridge. The popular southbound U-turn atop Austin Street will be eliminated to provide more green space and pedestrian space as well. That U-turn is not expected to be necessary in the new traffic patterns.

A new intersection is to be introduced at the entrance to Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC), which is hoped to stitch the two sides of the neighborhood back together.

“We believe it will stitch the neighborhood together so you can actually cross the road, which is a huge benefit to the project,” said Maki.

Approaching Sullivan Square, the old portal will be removed finally, and the ramp to the underpass will be shrunk by 800 feet, and there would be only one lane of traffic in the underpass in each direction.

The rotary at Sullivan Square would be eliminated and a new street grid would be laid out with new parkland and three – a significant decrease from earlier plans – developable lots. The parkland proposed for the decking of the underpass would account for 1.5 acres of new parkland, which is just about the same amount of open space as City Square Park.

“We will be bookending the corridor with two large pieces of open space,” said Maki.

Rutherford Avenue would also re-align in the plan to connect with Maffa Way and provide a straight shot to the Somerville I-93 onramps and Assembly Row – moving traffic more efficiently, Maki said.

The configuration at Sullivan Square would also make public transit and those trying to access it from Charlestown a priority, Maki said.

“From a neighborhood perspective, you should be able to walk to Sullivan Square,” he said. “We realize that.”

The BRT situation was disappointing for regional advocates who had, at one time, inserted the center-lane bus line into the Rutherford Avenue plan – a favorite project of City leaders in Everett, Somerville and Malden. Leaving it out, however, doesn’t mean it is not possible in the future – especially as the Silver Line Extension expands to Everett, Sullivan Square and Kendall Square – with a possible spur heading into Boston via Rutherford Avenue. Maki and Conroy said they have been coordinating with the MBTA on the idea, and they have “future proofed” the corridor is that comes to bear with space for those stops on the side of the road and other accommodations.

“The T at this point in time did not seem to want to run buses and a full BRT down Rutherford Avenue,” said Maki, noting that they have pointed to having people take the Orange Line and not a bus into Haymarket.

Added Conroy, “We are planning for future bus stops. It’s not center BRT…but if there are side running buses, we have set aside enough space to future proof it. That the direction we’re heading. We think we’re right-sizing the road and accomplishing all the goals for what we’re designing.”

Conroy said they look to make the corridor something impressive, and not just a pass-through.

“To me, this project looks like a boulevard and right now it looks like a corridor,” he said. “It’s going to make the neighborhood feel like a neighborhood rather than a swath of asphalt separating the neighborhood into two parts.”

State Rep. Dan Ryan, who has picked up the torch recently to push the project ahead as the new administration in City Hall has emerged, said it’s time for Charlestown to get its piece of the pie.

“Here we are 21 years later and we’re still talking about Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square,” he said. “It is what it is. It’s the confluence of four different cities and Mystic Avenue in Medford. That’s why it is a regional connection, which I’ve always said…Let the rest of Boston know it’s our turn. We are the only neighborhood north of the Charles River. Most of the time when you talk to people in Charlestown, we feel that isolation from Boston…It is our turn. We want this road fixed…It’s time for us to come together, talk to the people here and let them know we want the best possible road to get folks where they need to be without impacting the rest of Charlestown. I think we’re there with this 25 percent design.”

If all goes as planned, the 100 percent design would come in June 2022, with the project being advertised by MassDOT in spring 2023. Construction could start in late summer 2023. To ask questions or voice concerns or accolades via e-mail, write Carrie Lavallee at [email protected]

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