Casey documents suggest at-grade bias

The state Casey Arborway team has released documents that suggest the state was biased in favor of an at-grade street network plan before the public process even started, though it still allowed for the possibility of a bridge replacement.

Early internal meeting notes mention an “Eisenhower Concept” and an “Olmsted Concept,” presumably referring to a new bridge and an at-grade street network. The design team decided to focus on developing the “Olmsted Concept.”

Emails, meeting notes and other internal documents pertaining to the Casey project before community involvement began were finally released to Design Advisory Group (DAG) and Bridging Forest Hills member Kevin Moloney late last month following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, after nine months of delay.

Bridging Forest Hills is a pro-bridge group that is pushing for the Casey project to be reset in favor of a new bridge instead of the chosen at-grade design.

Though Moloney told the Gazette that some requested documents still have not been released, he said that the documents that have been released “shout the message” that the state Department of Transportation (MassDOT), the agency in charge of the project, was biased in favor of an at-grade surface street network from the beginning.

“I think [whole process] was a ruse,” Moloney told the Gazette last week. “I think it was a phony deal right from the beginning.”

Gazette emails to MassDOT asking for comment and clarification were not returned by press time.

The first Working Advisory Group (WAG) meeting, the precursor to the DAG, was held in March 2011, following at least four months of internal meetings.

On Jan. 24, 2011, a meeting of project consultant firm HNTB employees and City and MassDOT officials met to discuss what to say about the Casey project at its first public meting. Notes from that meeting say, “a viaduct [replacement bridge] solution must clearly be an alternative. The process will determine the solution.”

But those notes also state that the focus should be on at-grade alternatives and that a bridge alternative would be available if at-grade was infeasible. They also state that talk of a replacement bridge should be kept generalized and should not mention a specific two-lane bridge design at all.

“If at the end of the study, we cannot come to a collective decision for an at-grade solution then we can proceed with a viaduct design,” the notes state. “We should focus on finding at-grade solutions. However, we may be pushed in that direction [of a bridge] as the study advances.”

A Jan. 21, 2011 email from then-MassDOT head Jeffrey Mullan to other MassDOT officials states that, “…this is a legacy issue. We can make it just like Olmsted planned it in 1878.”

Frederick Law Olmsted designed the Emerald Necklace system of parks in Boston in the 1870s and 1880s, including the Arborway in JP.

Notes from a Nov. 2, 2010 meeting between HNTB, MassDOT and other consultants, mention two concepts being developed: an “Eisenhower Concept” and an “Olmsted Concept.” Neither concept is explained in any of the documents the Gazette received.

However, Dwight Eisenhower was president of the U.S. from 1953 to 1961 and is remembered for launching the interstate highway system.

The Nov. 2 meeting notes state that, “the direction was given to base the alternatives on the Olmsted Concept.” Those notes also state, “an overpass may not be off the table for an alternative.”

Relocation for the 39 bus is also mentioned in conjunction with expanding capacity to service that bus in those same notes. The relocation of the 39 bus within Forest Hills station was not brought up to the DAG until late last year.

Notes from a Dec. 21, 2010 meeting between HNTB and City and MassDOT officials state that the “anticipated budget” for the project was $28 million, while noting that the projected cost for rebuilding the overpass would be $70 million to $80 million.

Notes from that same meeting also state that the group discussed identifying three at-grade alternatives and agreed that a bridge option should not be taken off the table.

Those same notes identify the need for a community-based working group. The City stated the importance of calling it an “Advisory Group, so the role was clear.”

The first WAG meeting, held on March 16, 2011, was not intended to be public. The Gazette reported at the time that it appeared that MassDOT was more enthusiastic about a surface road option, while residents were more interested in a new bridge. The meeting was essentially private and its attendees were not representative of the public at large.

State Rep. Liz Malia said at the time that she believed MassDOT has a “bias” toward the surface road option.

Meeting minutes from that March 16, 2011 WAG meeting confirm that then-City liaison John Romano told the group, “We are here because there are no preordained solutions.”

“There’s all this circumstantial evidence to suggest at-grade was [the state’s] first choice from beginning. It all points very clearly at what their intention was,” he told the Gazette last week. “I don’t think they ever gave a [replacement] bridge alternative a fair shake.”

Moloney first filed requests for the behind-the-scenes documents, which include emails, traffic analyses, cost estimates and other data pertaining to the Casey Arborway, in June 2012. By law, government agencies have 10 days to respond to such requests.

Following a December 2012 letter from the state Supervisor of Public Records that said MassDOT had “failed to meet its burden” and it needed to either release the documents or provide a breakdown of costs to release them, Moloney wrote MassDOT a check for $518.74 to cover some of those costs.

The check was received by MassDOT on Feb. 6 but was not cashed until March 12, after the Gazette started reporting for this article.

MassDOT released some documents to Moloney March 13, believing it had fulfilled all his requests, including two that incurred no charge, MassDOT spokesperson Michael Verseckes told the Gazette at the time.

“We sent him what we had,” he said.

Moloney told the Gazette that he has yet to receive all the items he requested and has paid for. These include more emails and meeting notes. They include notes from a meeting between Mayor Thomas Menino and Mullan, which was mentioned in some of the released documents.

“It defies common sense that MassDOT does not have in its possession, custody or control the public records” Moloney has requested, he writes in a March 21 letter to MassDOT, a copy of which Moloney provided to the Gazette.

Moloney first appealed to the Public Records Division of the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office last August and then again in September. Public Records does not have the power to enforce its determinations.

Updated version: This version clarifies that the first meeting of the Casey Overpass replacement process was essentially private and its commentary non-representative of public opinion.

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