FOREST HILLS—After months of delay and speculation, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) has decided that the Casey Overpass will be replaced by an at-grade street network and not a new bridge.
The decision to replace the overpass with six lanes of surface streets and possibly redesign Shea Circle was confirmed to the Gazette last week by MassDOT spokesperson Michael Verseckes. Community meetings are slated for later this month, as well as a Boston Cyclists Union-organized party tonight.
“[The community] process has led us to determine that the at-grade alternative reconnects the neighborhood, provides more open space, incorporates more design elements that are pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, and allows for more efficient bus movements through the area,” MassDOT Secretary Richard Davey said in a statement.
A meeting of the project’s Working Advisory Group (WAG) has been scheduled for March 20 at the State Lab. WAG meetings are open to the public, though the public is not expected to participate. A community meeting will be scheduled for the end of March.
A 25 percent design is expected by September. MassDOT expects construction to begin in October 2013 and finish by October 2016.
“We look forward to working together to foster a design and construction process that will create minimal disruption to Jamaica Plain residents and business owners while implementing a new, community-friendly vision for the Forest Hills area,” Mayor Thomas Menino said in a written statement.
City Councilor Matt O’Malley asked Davey, in a letter dated March 12, to focus on possible construction issues like side-street traffic, impact on MBTA traffic and supporting small businesses, along with asking MassDOT to at least partially fund the Arborway bus yard.
State Rep. Liz Malia first told the Gazette about the decision.
“It’s not great news, as far as I’m concerned,” Malia said. “They said they will do their best…There’s a lot of work to be done, whatever happens.”
“I see this as an opportunity to improve Forest Hills and this section of the Emerald Necklace,” said WAG member Sarah Freeman, an at-grade supporter. “We need to turn the page and focus on asking all the good, important questions and working toward a balanced outcome” for the project.
“I’m not surprised,” said WAG member Elizabeth Wylie, an at-grade critic. “From the first meeting, it was clear that this was what [MassDOT] was pushing…I think the process was awful. It divided the community.”
“MassDOT and HNTB [the project’s design firm] did not really lead us through a proper planning process last year. We got snookered,” said WAG member Jeffrey Ferris, a frequent critic of the at-grade option. “The process we went through last year was a disgrace to anyone who calls themself a planner, and an insult to our community.”
The Boston Cyclists Union quickly planned a “Reuniting JP” party at J.J. Foley’s Fireside Tavern at 30 Hyde Park Ave. tonight to celebrate the decision and to reunite the different groups that have been debating the issue, WAG member Pete Stidman said.
A letter sent to Davey by WAG members Kevin Moloney and Bernard Doherty lists grievances against Davey’s statements in the announcement, including the supposition that the at-grade option would reconnect the neighborhood and Davey’s description of the community process as “extensive.”
The at-grade design proposes to reshape Shea Circle into a standard signalized intersection, an option supported by a majority of WAG members when it was first proposed. Shea Circle is the current meeting point for Rt. 203, Yale Terrace, Morton Street, Forest Hills Drive and Forest Hills Street. It is also a gateway to Franklin Park.
The replacement might not be feasible if the trees growing in the circle are protected from being cut down. If that is the case, She Circle will be redesigned into an “egg-about,” an elongated roundabout with traffic lights at the east and west intersections and only one access point for Yale Terrace and Morton Street.
A WAG survey done last summer said that 95 percent of the 21 respondents found it acceptable to eliminate and replace or modify the landscaped Shea Circle with another type of intersection.
Project co-manager Paul King acknowledged in August that transforming Shea Circle to Shea Square—the standard, signalized intersection—might be affordable only with the surface-street replacement option.
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 was then rescheduled for late February, though MassDOT also missed that date.
The at-grade option is projected to expand New Washington Street to six lanes. It is expected to cost $52 million and includes roughly $20 million in improvements and MBTA station upgrades 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.
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 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.