‘Casey Arborway’ project met with cheers, protests

March 30, 2012
By

FOREST HILLS—The newly-renamed Casey Arborway project is being greeted with both cheers and protests by the community.

Some members of the project’s Design Advisory Group (DAG) showed their ire and disappointment at Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s (MassDOT) choice of an at-grade street network instead of a new bridge to replace the Casey Overpass at a March 20 meeting.

Others called for unity in continuing to advise the design team about the new street network, following a celebratory “Reuniting Jamaica Plain”-themed party earlier this month.

Meanwhile, the Bridging Forest Hills (BFH) group—which includes several members of the DAG—is organizing to build resistance to MassDOT’s choice and possibly delay the project or force MassDOT to create a new design.

“There will be no further discussion on a bridge,” MassDOT municipal liaison John Romano said. “The decision has been made.”

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. The process has been fraught with controversy since it was first announced in late 2010.

Since last April, the DAG, a renamed version of the previously-named Working Advisory Group (WAG), has counseled the design team on the two possible alternatives: a new, smaller bridge or an at-grade street network.

After months of delay, MassDOT decided on the at-grade plan earlier this month.

The primary sticking point between the two factions is whether an at-grade plan will be able to handle predicted 2035 levels of traffic. The design team has said that either plan would handle future traffic better than the current street layout does now.

“I am excited about a new Forest Hills,” JP resident Richard Heath said in comments on the Gazette website. “I am convinced that an at-grade solution is the best. The DOT data changed my mind. The opponents of the decision are obstructionists and we cannot afford to waste time with their silliness. Let’s work together on a fine new parkway.”

“I honestly believe that the impact [of the project] is not really understood” by the community at large, state Rep. Liz Malia told the Gazette last week. “My hope is that we won’t get so far down the road that there won’t be a better option” if the community decides one is needed.

Some members of the DAG are not convinced a surface road network would be a better replacement than a smaller bridge. Several—notably Bernard Doherty, Kevin Moloney, Elizabeth Wylie and Jeffrey Ferris—were very vocal about their disappointment at the DAG meeting.

“A big disservice has been done [to Jamaica Plain] by DOT and their consultants” in choosing the at-grade alternative, Ferris said, just before asking if the project can be delayed further.

Of the air quality study MassDOT released last month, Doherty said, “This is crap thrown together to justify an outcome…This isn’t worth the powder needed to blow it to Hades.”

Doherty also questioned the legality of using Accelerated Bridge Project (ABP) money—the federal source of the project’s funds—to fund improvements to Forest Hills Station, an MBTA facility.

“We review and take seriously every comment” MassDOT receives, Romano said. “You [DAG] are not designing this. You’re advising this.”

The process is now “a lot less about ideas but making sure the ideas we have work,” said project co-manager Paul King.

DAG member Michael Epp said he hoped those who do not approve of the at-grade option would remain engaged in the process, in hopes of making the eventual design better.

“Why would BTD [Boston Transportation Department] and MassDOT want a failure at Forest Hills?” he asked at the meeting.

“What we have to do for the next six months is work for the best plan we can,” DAG member Michael Halle added.

“There’s a real division here that if it’s not healed will follow us” through the end of the project, said DAG member Wendy Williams.

State Rep. Russell Holmes said he would ask MassDOT Secretary Richard Davey to include voting and a “sense of consensus” to the process going forward.

At an informal vote taken during a WAG meeting earlier in the process, the two options were at a dead heat, with a one-vote difference between them.

At the Nov. 21 community meeting, most public opinion 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.

The Boston Cyclists Union, MassBike, Livable Streets Alliance, JP Bikes, WalkBoston and the Emerald Necklace Conservancy all have stated their support for the at-grade option.

Doherty, Ferris, Moloney and other DAG members also participate in the Bridging Forest Hills (BFH) group, which has hosted at least two community meetings since the March 20 DAG meeting, one on March 21 in the Forest Hills area and one planned for March 27 on South Street, after the Gazette’s deadline. Doherty also had a petition.

Those unofficial meetings are to share “the facts as we know them,” according to BFH flyers, and to encourage participation from the community directly. BFH is advocating for a new, “Olmsted-inspired” bridge.

Frederick Law Olmsted designed the original Emerald Necklace park system, including the Arborway that runs over the overpass, emphasizing a system of parkways for vehicular traffic. His bridges, seen around Boston and in New York City’s Central Park, tend to include small round arches.

The design team entertained several possible bridge concepts last summer, including the idea that the bridge pillars have tree shapes to reinforce the Arborway connection.

The flyer used for the Forest Hills meeting includes controversial data that DAG member Sarah Freeman has previously called “fear-mongering.”

The flyer says that the Forest Hills area serves “Boston and other neighborhoods where 165,000 people live…25 percent of Boston’s population,” including Quincy and the South Shore in that tally. It also says that 700 new units of housing are expected to be built in the area.

As the Gazette has previously reported, Boston has 617,594 residents, according to the last census. JP has 37,468. According to a BRA fact sheet presented to the community last year, MassDOT is expecting 310 to 390 new housing units to be built in the Forest Hills area by 2035.

Another version of the flyer states that the at-grade plan will not have parking and that traffic on New Washington Street will triple. The design team plans to find sites for parking in the upcoming 25 percent design. Traffic that currently travels over the overpass is expected to migrate to New Washington Street. Projected 2035 traffic levels are expected to include a 5 percent increase in local traffic and 12 percent in regional traffic.

At the March 21 BFH meeting in the Forest Hills neighborhood, Ferris stated, “Some of us believe we can stop [MassDOT’s] decision.”

“The process was a bag job from the start,” Doherty said at the March 21 meeting.

Forest Hills-area resident Todd Consentino asked his neighbors to join together to shape MassDOT’s chosen alternative in the best way possible for the area at that meeting.

“It’s irresponsible to mislead people into thinking that there wouldn’t be any harm in restarting this process, which is what they [BFH] want to do,” said at-grade supporter and Boston Cyclists Union Executive Director Pete Stidman. “I think it’s a great cause to get more people engaged in the process, but it’s important to have impartial information available.”

The meetings are run in a manner that does not accept a MassDOT decision and puts forward a great deal of misinformation, Stidman continued.

During the March 20 meeting, the DAG asked Romano to revisit DAG membership in an effort to maximize community involvement.  Some members asked that frequently-absent representatives of groups already on the DAG to be replaced by others with better availability. Other DAG members insisted that wider representation is required.

Romano said at the March 20 meeting that the suggestions would be considered, but would not commit to either. Romano did not answer a Gazette email asking whether MassDOT had reached that decision by press time.

“We have no plans to alter the make-up of the group,” Romano said at the meeting, but also said that local business owners could be added to the DAG.

The “25 percent design,” or first draft, for the replacement of the Casey Overpass with the new parkway will be presented to the community in October. The 75 percent design is expected by March of next year; the final design is expected by July.

Bidding by contractors will begin in October 2013 and construction is expected to be finished by October 2016, the design team announced.

The DAG can expect to meet at least once a month—possibly more—between now and August to continue advising the MassDOT, design team municipal liaison John Romano said at the meeting.

The DAG will focus on construction management, protecting local neighborhoods from cut-through traffic, maintaining MBTA bus travel times, coordinating with and providing mitigating measures for local small businesses, and not impacting the plan for the Arborway bus yard.

The replacement surface street—the Casey Parkway—will replace New Washington Street with six lanes. It is expected to cost $52 million and includes roughly $20 million in improvements and MBTA station upgrades.

The Arborway bus yard, located at Washington Street and the Arborway, was built as a temporary facility eight years ago and is three years overdue to be replaced by a permanent facility. The permanent facility is ready to begin being built as soon as funds are located.

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

Corrected version: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the new name of the project as the “Casey Parkway.”

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  • Vickie W

    It would be wonderful if the Arborway bus project could be reconsidered, given the elevated status a parkway will give to this area. I find it senseless to house all those buses directly on a major tranportation hub. That area should be for people to live and work. Not to house buses.

  • Dorian

    If BFH continues to attempt to obstruct this process we’ll end up with a completely unusable bridge and an even worse traffic problem.  I know they are disappointed with the outcome, but there are far more people who are in support of the at-grade option (more than they realize), and we could end up losing all the money that is available for area improvements.  As a resident and property owner in the area (who has been following these developments closely, but has not attended any meetings nor is affiliated with any of these groups) I sincerely hope they can work with the DOT to make the at-grade-option the best it can be.  It’s time for us as a community to move on.