MassDOT: Casey plans were never biased

April 12, 2013
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The state Department of Transportation (MassDOT) maintains that it was “absolutely” not biased in favor of replacing the deteriorating Casey Overpass with an at-grade street network, despite suggestions in recently released internal documents.

The documents from the early planning stages of the Casey Arborway project, before any public meetings, suggest that MassDOT focused on an at-grade alternative, as the Gazette previously reported. But MassDOT spokesperson Michael Verseckes today maintaining that MassDOT had no preference and explored “all potential possibilities for replacement.”

“MassDOT’s earlier commitment to explore and study all possibilities was done through a public process that relied heavily on neighbors, advocates and other interested groups that included individuals with diverse areas of expertise. This is the first project we have ever engaged with neighbors to this degree and the project has benefited from that involvement,” he said.

The documents state that MassDOT officials were directed to focus on an “Olmsted Concept” rather than an “Eisenhower Concept,” and that the team should focus the community on “finding an at-grade solution.” The head of MassDOT at the time wrote an email about the possibility of creating a parkway as Emerald Necklace designer Frederick Law Olmsted intended. MassDOT representatives present at the first Working Advisory Group (WAG) meeting, held in March 2011, also seemed much more enthusiastic about the at-grade option.

Yet Verseckes told the Gazette today that MassDOT had no such focus. He said MassDOT “absolutely” had no bias toward any option.

Verseckes explained that the terms “Eisenhower Concept” and “Olmsted Concept” were used to refer to two concepts that placed different emphasis on different aspects of the project. The “Eisenhower Concept” prioritized traffic, vehicles and pavement, while the “Olmsted Concept” emphasized preserving parkland and open space, he said.

“The two terms represent ‘book end’ concepts to frame a discussion of potential alternatives at the beginning of the study,” he explained. “They were ideas to spark discussion about what the final design would be to assist the design team throughout the process.”

He added that the current at-grade plan could be seen as a compromise between the two early concepts, balancing open space with vehicular access.

As for the focus on “finding an at-grade solution,” Verseckes said that referred to studying that option more in-depth than a bridge alternative.

“There’s been a bridge there for 50 years. We know that would work. The time and emphasis was spent on studying and developing a second possibility,” he said.

Verseckes said he was not present at that first meeting and could not comment on the team’s enthusiasm. He said MassDOT simply viewed the project as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-imagine what could go there.”

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.

Despite those statements, Verseckes said, there was no such focus.

“Replacing the existing bridge was never a ‘Plan B.’ In fact, as of Jan. 24, 2011, there were no concepts nor any analysis of any scenario completed at the time,” Verseckes said. “At that time, we were laying out a plan for the process, not knowing what the specific alternatives or results would be. We did know that an extensive amount of study, analysis, discussion, and design would be required to develop and test alternatives.”

Verseckes did say that MassDOT spent more time studying the possibility of an at-grade alternative—mostly because the agency already knew a bridge would work in the area.

“We also knew that the majority of this time spent studying would be focused on the at-grade alternatives, not because of any bias, but simply because little study was needed to determine that we could put a bridge back because one is there now,” he said.

“Regardless of the allocation of time spent studying alternatives, we would be able to roll right into a bridge design at the time a decision was made one way or the other without any delay,” Verseckes added.

The at-grade plan is already known to be less costly than a replacement overpass. Notes from a Dec. 21, 2010 meeting among consultant firm 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—a possible indication that MassDOT already was leaning toward an at-grade plan at that time.

But, Verseckes said, that $28 million estimate was for a partial reconstruction of the existing overpass—still considered possible at the time—and not about an at-grade plan. Upon further study, MassDOT decided to completely demolish the Casey instead.

“At that time, there was no cost estimate or information for any at-grade solutions because no study had been done yet. There was minimal consideration given to the notion that the overpass could be replaced with a surface-level configuration,” he added. “It was also at that time that MassDOT made a commitment to fully study the potential and possibilities of rebuilding a bridge or developing some type of at-grade configuration.”

The documents in question were released as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made by Kevin Moloney, a member of the Design Advisory Group (DAG) advising MassDOT on the Casey Arborway plan, and also a member of Bridging Forest Hills, a group that opposes the at-grade plan in favor of a new bridge.

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