Overpass delay continues amid debate

February 3, 2012
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Traffic study is reviewed

FOREST HILLS—The Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s (MassDOT) decision on the future of the Casey Overpass is still delayed, largely due to state Rep. Liz Malia’s pushing for further study of MassDOT’s data. Meanwhile, some Working Advisory Group (WAG) members are starting to worry that continued delays might jeopardize the project.

Malia told the Gazette about her participation in forcing the delay last week.

“It’s not a secret in terms of my concerns,” she said.

Malia has been pushing for delays to provide the community more time to analyze the data provided by MassDOT, especially traffic data first presented to the community in late November, shortly before MassDOT’s decision was originally expected. That decision has now been delayed twice.

Malia received an analysis of the traffic data, created by an independent traffic engineer. That independent analysis found the greatest problem in MassDOT’s findings to be the national standard used in evaluating the data, not the data itself.

Meanwhile, some WAG members are calling for a quick decision and a conclusion to the process. A letter sent to Patrick and signed by 11 WAG members asks for a swift decision so the process can continue.

“We worry that any further delays in making this decision could jeopardize the thoroughness of the remaining design processes and risk the funding available under the Accelerated Bridge Program,” that letter stated.

“We know…that the majority of the neighbors support the at-grade option,” said Boston Cyclists Union Executive Director and WAG member Pete Stidman. “Instead of having questions about the particulars of the designs, Malia’s motivation seems to be a broad mistrust of MassDOT.”

State Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez has previously called for a swift decision. Sánchez and state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz have both stated that most of the input they’ve received from their constituents has been in favor of the at-grade plan.

“If something’s going to happen, let’s not miss the boat. State resources are hard to come by,” he told the Gazette.

Five WAG members, including Bernard Doherty and Jeffrey Ferris, have written a letter to the Gazette in favor of the bridge alternative, calling it a “flawed pre-decision process.”

“We want to make sure we’ve satisfied all the concerns that have come in” before announcing a decision, MassDOT spokesperson Mike Verseckes said.

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 decision announcement was originally scheduled for mid-December. It was postponed to mid-January after elected officials, led by Malia, requested a delay in the decision amid community controversy. The decision announcement has not yet been rescheduled.

Malia has pushed for a more thorough process since the project’s beginnings, though she admits MassDOT made a significant effort.

The delivery of traffic information so late in the process was a sticking point for members of the community, Malia said.

“We didn’t have a lot of time or opportunity for discussion,” she said of the Nov. 21 traffic presentation. “We got lots of data but not enough time to process it.”

“My concern is that there [should] be a broad enough study of how traffic really flows and who’s using Forest Hills so that we don’t create more of a problem than what we’ve got today,” Malia said.

Malia received a copy of a separate traffic study done by an independent traffic engineer, Stephen Kaiser, and provided those results to the Gazette.

Kaiser’s main criticisms of the MassDOT data are about the nationally-used standard for calculating capacity and quality of service, the Highway Capacity Manual, not about the Casey plan itself.

“My general conclusion is that the defects in the Highway Capacity Manual are more severe than any errors produced by the consultants for the Casey study,” Kaiser said in his report.

He also mentioned a lack of future accident projections and too-low standards of pedestrian and bicycle service as further shortcomings, but noted that these are common nationally.

Kaiser did “detect an agency [MassDOT] preference for one of the alternatives, but the meetings and sharing of information over the past two months was superior to the norm.”

Kaiser listed advantages and disadvantages to both options, which largely echoed WAG discussions last fall.

Malia, along with U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, also called for a thorough examination of environmental data that might affect the asthma rates in the area in a Jan. 6 letter to Gov. Deval Patrick, a copy of which Malia provided to the Gazette.

“It’s a small area and a high concentration of vehicles. It’s a quality of life issue,” Doherty said of a requested—not but required—air quality study. “Before we move forward, we need to have that addressed.”

Environmental studies and other review processes would not be tackled until the 25 percent design stage, after a decision is made, according to Verseckes.

“We won’t know [which studies are needed] until the alternative is selected,” he said.

Meanwhile, Malia and state Rep. Marty Walz are investigating the possibility of extending the 2016 project deadline. Walz represents District 8, an area with multiple Accelerated Bridge Program [APB] projects.

According to Walz, the legislation responsible for the APB mandates that all bonds issued to pay for the program be repaid by 2046. The state has been issuing 30-year bonds, which means the state would have to stop issuing those bonds by 2016 to meet the deadline.

However, “they could do 20-year bonds,” Walz suggested. “It’s MassDOT’s policy that the Accelerated Bridge Program [ABP] end in 2016…There’s good reason behind the policy, but there are good reasons to extend the timetable, too.”

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.

Correction: due to a reporting error, this article previously stated that state Rep. Liz Malia commissioned an independent traffic report on the Casey Overpass project from Stephen Kaiser. Kaiser said he was not commissioned for the report and provided it to Malia without her request. The above article has been corrected.

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