Overpass replacement choice to be made

December 2, 2011
By

Bridge supporters rally

(Illustration courtesy MassDOT) Illustrations of what the surface street option (left) and bridge option might look like on New Washington Street.

FOREST HILLS—The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) will decide on which alternative—bridge or at-grade—will replace the current Casey Overpass by Dec. 12.

Bridge supporters are rallying against what they call a biased MassDOT process. Surface option supporters are also organizing.

The decision will be announced to members of the Working Advisory Group (WAG) on Dec. 12 and to the community at large Dec. 14. The WAG is advising MassDOT on the plan.

“The Casey Overpass was a terrible mistake we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix,” JP resident Beth Worell said at a Nov. 21 community meeting.

Meanwhile, a group of WAG members, along with state Rep. Liz Malia, is pushing for a meeting between elected officials and MassDOT representatives to address concerns over the design team’s perceived bias for an at-grade option and to possibly delay the final decision. No such meeting was scheduled as of the Gazette’s deadline.

“I’m very concerned with how MassDOT is jamming the Casey resolution down our throats,” Malia told the Gazette. “It’s shortsighted.”

Paul King, the state’s project manager, maintained that the design team is not biased in favor of any option.

But during the most recent community meeting on Nov. 21, the MassDOT presentation contained language that favored an at-grade option.

“No one says, ‘Let’s put a bridge in that space to improve it,’” said design team member Don Kindsvatter, presenting on the at-grade option. “Spaces under bridges are not inherently places people flock to. They are places people pass through but do not congregate in.”

According to the design team, both a replacement bridge or a new street network without a bridge would handle projected traffic increases well, and both would improve on the current street network.

The bridge alternative is expected to cost $73 million while the at-grade option is projected to cost $52 million. The at-grade option includes roughly $20 million in amenities and MBTA station improvements not included in the bridge option. If not covered by the Casey project, those amenities and improvements would have to come from MassDOT’s already-tight budget.

A standing-room-only crowd at the State Lab building on South Street voiced its opinions and asked questions on the two alternatives for an hour and a half, following a presentation on the mobility and livability of the two options on Nov. 21.

Public opinion at the meeting favored the at-grade option, though there was significant support for the bridge. Several attendees said they started as bridge supporters and have since changed their minds in favor of the at-grade option.

“I say, ‘What would Olmsted do?’ He’d reconnect the two parks,” Anne Anderson, a JP resident, said in favor of the at-grade option. Frederick Law Olmsted designed the original Emerald Necklace park system, emphasizing a system of parkways for vehicular traffic.

“Olmsted’s dream—Olmsted’s dead,” said WAG member Bernie Doherty. “I question the sanity” of those who support the at-grade option, he said.

“I want to feel like my city isn’t cut in two,” said JP resident Laura Everett. “I haven’t heard a compelling case for a bridge yet.”

“Everyone’s going, ‘If they’re comparable, why build a bridge?’ The point is, they could make the bridge alternative better,” WAG member Jeff Ferris told the Gazette this week. The design team’s “goal [with a bridge option] was to minimize pavement…I don’t think they were trying to fix traffic at Forest Hills.”

A Gazette phone call to the Boston Transportation Department, which would be responsible for possibly improving the street network, was not returned by press time.

WAG member David Hannon, who is part of the effort to organize the meeting between MassDOT and elected officials, mentioned concerns about different traffic statistics used in the planning of the project and said he hopes they would be addressed in a meeting with MassDOT.

“I heard more questions than I heard answers” at the Nov. 21 meeting, Malia said. “My personal belief—and I can’t say this for a fact—but I think they [MassDOT] sat down and chose an alternative [last year]. The community process happened because they were forced to the table.”

The Gazette has previously reported on the different traffic projections used by the project. One of the background studies used by the design team said the street-level option is impossible, stating, “at-grade alternatives were deemed infeasible after considerable analysis and are not recommended” due to high levels of projected gridlock traffic.

King told the Gazette in May that that estimate was likely based on boilerplate estimates, not actual data collected from the relevant area, and that those projections delivered higher numbers than should realistically be expected.

“We’ve worked with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and traffic staff to develop a lot truer traffic numbers rather than filling in an arbitrary percentage,” King told the Gazette at the time. “It certainly warranted a more definitive analysis of those numbers.”

Overpass demolition was not announced by the state and was revealed by the Gazette. Malia pressed for the WAG process, which began with a secret meeting. The process has since become public.

The WAG was told to find the “best possible solution,” but now the design team is including budgetary concerns to push for an at-grade solution, Hannon told the Gazette this week.

MassDOT “feels empowered to push [the project] whichever way it wants to push it,” Hannon said. “It’s too important to let MassDOT do anything they want to do with it.”

“There are a serious number of unresolved questions…I want to feel like we’ve really vetted the process,” Malia said. “I don’t feel like we’ve gotten good answers yet. I think were caught in the weeds right now.”

Malia said she might have missed the information, but that she did not see how the two alternatives could deal with traffic comparably. She said she expected the bridge option to provide better traffic flow.

Malia, along with some WAG members, are pushing for a delay in the decision, to give the community more time to provide feedback.

“In the interest of fair public process, we’d like to delay the process beyond the holidays,” Ferris said. “It’s a huge amount of information and expecting the community to process it in ten days is not very fair.”

Mike Verseckes, a MassDOT spokesperson, said the original six-month community process has been already lengthened to nine months.

“We’ve taken great measures to incorporate pubic feedback into what the final decision will be,” he told the Gazette. “The neighbors have played an enormous role in this process.”

Boston Cyclists Union, MassBike, Livable Streets Alliance, JP Bikes, WalkBoston and the Emerald Necklace Conservancy have organized a meeting to discuss the alternatives Dec. 6, 6 p.m., at the State Lab building. Those organizations favor the at-grade option.

Supporters of the bridge option have created a website, rebuildcasey.com, that lists their arguments and contact information for elected officials.

The Monsignor William J. Casey Overpass is the elevated section of Route 203 over Washington and South streets, next to the Forest Hills MBTA Station. Built in the 1950s, it has become too expensive to maintain and is now due for replacement.

Most of the project’s materials, meeting minutes and documentation are available on the project’s website, massdot.state.ma.us/CaseyOverpass.

Comments can be sent to the city liaison, John Romano, at john.romano@state.ma.us or 617-973-7028.

Updated version: This version corrects the bridge supporters website address rebuildcasey.com. It also corrects the spelling of Beth Worell’s name.

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  • Mnavin

    The graphic accurately shows three lanes in the at grade solution, and only two at grade lanes in the bridge option…what the graphic can’t do for bridge proponents is make the bridge look any less imposing, because it will not be.  The at-grade solution is gaining momentum among the MassDOT planners because it is the better choice for JP and Forest Hills.  

  • http://twitter.com/kehutchinson Kate Hutchinson

    I live right next door to the Casey Overpass and I would very much prefer an at-grade solution.  As a biker, it’s easier to ride on at-grade streets than on or under a bridge. (Bridges create all kinds of winds and distort noises making it harder to balance and judge traffic around you by sound.)

    Before the ’50s, there WAS an at-grade road through there. The bridge was built to accomodate the infrastructure that was there at the time, namely the elevated Orange Line. That elevated train line isn’t there anymore, so we don’t need a bridge to work around it.

    An at-grade solution would also allow for more traffic calming solutions in the Forest Hills area. And I have to point out, in reply to Mr. Leong’s comment about traffic, the traffic on the Casey Overpass is not a huge amount (please consult the traffic figures on the project website). People who look at the “massive amounts of traffic” in the area are the same people who can’t wait 15 seconds for a walk light. Driving around town involves some wait times, because that’s just the nature of roads. I see the “traffic” on the Casey Overpass during rush hour every morning and rush hour every evening, and it’s not an overwhelming amount, no more so than the number of cars going over Washington Street. Would you like to put in a bridge to replace Washington Street too?

    The MassDOT team hasn’t shoved anything on our community, and the only person I see giving out misinformation here is Jeffrey Ferris. 

  • George Leong

    I don’t understand why the bike groups prefer the at grade solution.  Why would they want to be at grade level with more cars to avoid, wider roads to cross, more chances to be hit by a moving car or car doors opening on the street side, no protection from the elements, stopping (state law?) at each (4) traffic light, school bus stopping traffic to pick up and drop off.  There are even road rage against bike cyclist.  Wouldn’t it be better to have a bike lane up on the bridge to by pass all that?  Just doesn’t make any sense.

    There’s a comment by the design team  Don Kindsvatter about people do not flock to places under the bridge.  Show me people who would flock, stop, play, sit and chat on a strip of grass  right between two 3 lane traffic unless that strip of grass is as wide as Commonwealth Ave near Boston Common.

    Most of these people who want to have the at grade solution do not live in the effected area, having to deal with all the traffic, noise, pollution for 5 to 6 hours every work day.  Some of these people don’t even live in Jamaica Plain!  Most of these people just drive / ride thru. 

    Granted that the at grade solution looks great.  People comment on how great the area looks now that the Central Artery is gone.  But the traffic did not disappear but relocated under ground.  We do not have that option here.  Can you imagine if they decided to just get rid of the artery for a at grade solution? 

    State Design team seem to want to save a few bucks at the expense of people losing time and money stuck in a traffic jam.

    People need to focus on long term, not short “looks good” term.

  • Jeffrey Ferris, WAG member

    The graphic shown here clearly demonstrates the bias from MassDOT.  These graphics are supposed to help the community evaluate the differences in the 2 options presented.  As shown here, the bridge option looks like it has more pavement and less greenspace.  Actually, the no-bridge has 50% wider streets.  The narrower streets with the bridge creates more open space than the no-bridge option.  Clearly these graphics show the exact opposite of what a true and fair representation would.  The consistency of this type of misrepresentation throughout the WAG process brings many of us to the conclusion that this is intentional.

Best of JP 2014