Overpass choice delayed

January 20, 2012
By

FOREST HILLS— The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) may reach a decision on the future of the Casey Overpass in private this week, but it will not immediately hold a public meeting to announce the decision.

MassDOT previously said the decision would be made this week.

“Usually we publicize meetings for two weeks, and we haven’t publicized anything at all,” MassDOT spokesperson Michael Verseckes told the Gazette on Tuesday. “To schedule a meeting this week would put in jeopardy the hard work a lot of people have done so far.”

“We’re going to try our best to be seamless and fair. [The announcement] is not going to happen this week, but it will be soon,” he said.

State Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez is calling for a swift decision.

“The process has been exhaustive. They went well beyond what I ever thought they would have done,” he said. “I do think a deadline is important, otherwise this is going to go on forever. If we don’t make up our minds, the governor will be able to put that money somewhere else.”

The announcement was originally scheduled for a mid-December community meeting, after being announced to the project’s Working Advisory Group (WAG). It was postponed after elected officials, led by state Rep. Liz Malia, requested a delay in the decision amid community controversy.

“The point of the delay was not to enjoy eggnog during the holidays, but to make an attempt to respond to questions and challenges so this community will not be so divided about the process and the alternatives,” WAG member Jeffrey Ferris wrote to the Gazette this week. “It looks like the delay MassDOT granted was not to resolve anything but to placate [elected representatives] and silence the media that called for more time and more discussion.”

The future of the Casey Overpass and adjoining Forest Hills area will hinge on whether the soon-to-be retired Casey Overpass will be replaced by a new, smaller bridge, or by surface streets alone.

The at-grade option would expand the surface street network to six lanes on New Washington Street and would increase the area of the Southwest Corridor Park. It also includes amenities like adding bike lanes on Washington Street south of the overpass and relocating an MBTA head-house to the north side of New Washington Street.

A replacement bridge would be shorter, smaller and narrower than the existing overpass and would keep regional traffic off surface streets. But the bridge plan does not include the extra other amenities that are part of the at-grade plan.

Elected officials and local organizations are making their choices: the Emerald Necklace Conservancy, the Arborway Coalition, WalkBoston, LivableStreets Alliance and the Boston Cyclists Union have all come out in favor of the at-grade option.

The Jamaica Pond Association, meanwhile, voted earlier this month to support a new bridge. The West Roxbury Courthouse Neighborhood Association polled its members and 55 percent of respondents favored a replacement bridge. A December Stonybrook Neighborhood Association (SNA) poll showed a dead heat: 35 prefer the at-grade option, 34 chose a new bridge and 5 were undecided.

Some, however, wish for a third option: a small bridge with the amenities included on the at-grade plan. State Rep. Russell Holmes has told the Gazette that this would be his choice.

MassDOT has stated numerous times during WAG and community meetings that such a design would be too expensive.

“I wish we didn’t have to pick either of the two,” Holmes said, but given that, he is open to either option. “I’m still on the fence,” he said.

That sentiment is echoed by Sánchez.

“I’m kind of stuck, like everyone else in the neighborhood,” Sánchez said. “On my side [of JP], I feel like more people have been active for the at-grade alternative, but they’re just as torn as I am.”

State Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz is mostly concerned with improving current traffic.

“The most important thing to me is that the situation is improved [by either option] when it comes to gridlock. Aside from that, my responsibility is to amplify public input,” Chang-Díaz said. “I would say the majority I’ve heard from has been for the at-grade solution.”

Holmes echoed a frequent criticism, saying that the state’s process has been biased in preference of the at-grade design. Holmes has cited the lack of input from regional people in the process as evidence. State Rep. Liz Malia told the Gazette last April that she felt the state was “biased” in favor of the at-grade option.

Others still are not convinced that the state is ready to move forward with the project at all.

“I have serious concerns over the [traffic] data provided by MassDOT… [Some] people are not satisfied that either option is sufficiently built-out to deal with the major congestion problem [in the area],” Malia told the Gazette this week.

A Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS) long-range transportation plan dated Sept. 22, available on its website, lists the current cost estimate for the project as $33.6 million, well short of the $53 million to $72 million range given at WAG and community meetings.

That document was prepared in August, before the current estimates of the project were determined, Verseckes said. “If you’re seeing a disparity in figures here, this is the reason.”

The Casey Overpass is the State Route 203 bridge over Washington Street and Hyde Park Avenue at the Forest Hills T Station. The aging bridge must be demolished in coming years.

The state Casey Overpass project website is at massdot.state.ma.us/caseyoverpass.

 

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