Twenty-two years ago, Jamaica Plain was engaged with a now-familiar concern: The Casey Overpass was undergoing a lengthy construction project, and JP was wondering what the impact on the neighborhood and its traffic would be.
At the time, the Casey was undergoing renovations to address structural failings and narrow the overpass from three lanes in either direction to two. It was during this time that brick facing was removed and the “sidewalk to nowhere” was added.
Then as now, public process was controversial and vehicular traffic was a concern, though apparently only created localized impact.
The current Casey project will demolish the 50-year-old overpass and replace it with an expanded at-grade street network. Many opponents of the plan are concerned about the possibility of gridlock during and following construction. But the state Department of Transportation (MassDOT) has assured the community that the improved at-grade infrastructure will be able to handle projected 2035 levels of traffic better than it handles the current traffic load. The MassDOT team has not yet finalized construction traffic patterns.
“Overall, [the 1990 process and construction] was a nightmare but it’s not the amount of traffic they’re talking about now,” longtime Asticou neighborhood resident Bernie Doherty said, explaining that he expects the current project to create many more traffic problems than the last.
As far as traffic congestion as a result of the construction work, longtime Jamaica Plain resident Jeffrey Ferris said he had no recollection of how congested traffic was in 1990.
Longtime JP resident and former publisher of the Gazette, Sandra Storey said she also does “not remember work on the Casey so much…and I had to drive under it to get to work at the JP Citizen then. I don’t recall the community making any kind of deal out of it, either.”
When those renovations were first completed, the overpass did not meet standards, so construction had to start anew. It was under construction for over two years, all told.
“As soon as it was done, it was decided to do it again,” Ferris said.
In the Aug. 23, 1990 issue of the Jamaica Plain Citizen, Doherty asked how Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) officials, the agency in charge of the Casey at the time, could have missed structural failings for so long, noting, “Don’t they do bridge inspections on a regular basis?”
State inspections are usually done every other year, per Federal Highway Administration guidelines. The Casey is currently on a yearly inspection schedule due to its advanced age.
That same Citizen article echoes concerns over state and local agency transparency still being voiced today. MDC held a meeting that August, at the community’s request, to hear neighbors’ concerns, many of whom felt their opinions were ignored.
“The whole process here suggests that little thought was given to the impact on the neighborhood,” resident Dick McDonough was quoted as saying at the time, referring to the “sidewalk to nowhere.”
The transparency criticism is still being applied to MassDOT. Many community members still believe that MassDOT started the current process with the decision to remove the Casey and replace it with an at-grade street network already made. MassDOT has categorically denied that claim numerous times.
The “sidewalk to nowhere” was the nickname given to the sidewalks added to both sides of the Casey. They were intended mostly as a safety measure, to force vehicular traffic nearer the center of the structure, not as a pedestrian throughway.
“Don’t call it a sidewalk. Call it something else,” JP resident Michael Reiskind remembers thinking at the time.
Before then, from 1977 to the 1990s, riders could ride their bikes onto the overpass, using a former traffic lane-turned-shoulder, Ferris remembered.
When the sidewalks were added, bikes lost that safe shoulder, a loss Ferris said he still feels. Ferris was, until early this year, a member of the community advisory group working with the state design team to demolish the Casey and decide its replacement.
“The people who didn’t want a [new] bridge [to replace the failing Casey] wouldn’t even talk about a sidewalk on the bridge,” he said.
The overpass is the State Route 203/Arborway bridge over Washington Street and New Washington Street. The aging overpass is due to be demolished and replaced with a network of surface streets starting next year.