Overpass replacement choice to be made

Bridge supporters rally

(Illustration courtesy MassDOT) Illustrations of what the surface street option (left) and bridge option might look like on New Washington Street.

FOREST HILLS—The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) will decide on which alternative—bridge or at-grade—will replace the current Casey Overpass by Dec. 12.

Bridge supporters are rallying against what they call a biased MassDOT process. Surface option supporters are also organizing.

The decision will be announced to members of the Working Advisory Group (WAG) on Dec. 12 and to the community at large Dec. 14. The WAG is advising MassDOT on the plan.

“The Casey Overpass was a terrible mistake we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fix,” JP resident Beth Worell said at a Nov. 21 community meeting.

Meanwhile, a group of WAG members, along with state Rep. Liz Malia, is pushing for a meeting between elected officials and MassDOT representatives to address concerns over the design team’s perceived bias for an at-grade option and to possibly delay the final decision. No such meeting was scheduled as of the Gazette’s deadline.

“I’m very concerned with how MassDOT is jamming the Casey resolution down our throats,” Malia told the Gazette. “It’s shortsighted.”

Paul King, the state’s project manager, maintained that the design team is not biased in favor of any option.

But during the most recent community meeting on Nov. 21, the MassDOT presentation contained language that favored an at-grade option.

“No one says, ‘Let’s put a bridge in that space to improve it,’” said design team member Don Kindsvatter, presenting on the at-grade option. “Spaces under bridges are not inherently places people flock to. They are places people pass through but do not congregate in.”

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 bridge alternative is expected to cost $73 million while the at-grade option is projected to cost $52 million. The at-grade option includes roughly $20 million in amenities and MBTA station improvements 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.

A standing-room-only crowd at the State Lab building on South Street voiced its opinions and asked questions on the two alternatives for an hour and a half, following a presentation on the mobility and livability of the two options on Nov. 21.

Public opinion at the meeting 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.

“I say, ‘What would Olmsted do?’ He’d reconnect the two parks,” Anne Anderson, a JP resident, said in favor of the at-grade option. Frederick Law Olmsted designed the original Emerald Necklace park system, emphasizing a system of parkways for vehicular traffic.

“Olmsted’s dream—Olmsted’s dead,” said WAG member Bernie Doherty. “I question the sanity” of those who support the at-grade option, he said.

“I want to feel like my city isn’t cut in two,” said JP resident Laura Everett. “I haven’t heard a compelling case for a bridge yet.”

“Everyone’s going, ‘If they’re comparable, why build a bridge?’ The point is, they could make the bridge alternative better,” WAG member Jeff Ferris told the Gazette this week. The design team’s “goal [with a bridge option] was to minimize pavement…I don’t think they were trying to fix traffic at Forest Hills.”

A Gazette phone call to the Boston Transportation Department, which would be responsible for possibly improving the street network, was not returned by press time.

WAG member David Hannon, who is part of the effort to organize the meeting between MassDOT and elected officials, mentioned concerns about different traffic statistics used in the planning of the project and said he hopes they would be addressed in a meeting with MassDOT.

“I heard more questions than I heard answers” at the Nov. 21 meeting, Malia said. “My personal belief—and I can’t say this for a fact—but I think they [MassDOT] sat down and chose an alternative [last year]. The community process happened because they were forced to the table.”

The Gazette has previously reported on the different traffic projections used by the project. One of the background studies used by the design team said the street-level option is impossible, stating, “at-grade alternatives were deemed infeasible after considerable analysis and are not recommended” due to high levels of projected gridlock traffic.

King told the Gazette in May that that estimate was likely based on boilerplate estimates, not actual data collected from the relevant area, and that those projections delivered higher numbers than should realistically be expected.

“We’ve worked with the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) and traffic staff to develop a lot truer traffic numbers rather than filling in an arbitrary percentage,” King told the Gazette at the time. “It certainly warranted a more definitive analysis of those numbers.”

Overpass demolition was not announced by the state and was revealed by the Gazette. Malia pressed for the WAG process, which began with a secret meeting. The process has since become public.

The WAG was told to find the “best possible solution,” but now the design team is including budgetary concerns to push for an at-grade solution, Hannon told the Gazette this week.

MassDOT “feels empowered to push [the project] whichever way it wants to push it,” Hannon said. “It’s too important to let MassDOT do anything they want to do with it.”

“There are a serious number of unresolved questions…I want to feel like we’ve really vetted the process,” Malia said. “I don’t feel like we’ve gotten good answers yet. I think were caught in the weeds right now.”

Malia said she might have missed the information, but that she did not see how the two alternatives could deal with traffic comparably. She said she expected the bridge option to provide better traffic flow.

Malia, along with some WAG members, are pushing for a delay in the decision, to give the community more time to provide feedback.

“In the interest of fair public process, we’d like to delay the process beyond the holidays,” Ferris said. “It’s a huge amount of information and expecting the community to process it in ten days is not very fair.”

Mike Verseckes, a MassDOT spokesperson, said the original six-month community process has been already lengthened to nine months.

“We’ve taken great measures to incorporate pubic feedback into what the final decision will be,” he told the Gazette. “The neighbors have played an enormous role in this process.”

Boston Cyclists Union, MassBike, Livable Streets Alliance, JP Bikes, WalkBoston and the Emerald Necklace Conservancy have organized a meeting to discuss the alternatives Dec. 6, 6 p.m., at the State Lab building. Those organizations favor the at-grade option.

Supporters of the bridge option have created a website, rebuildcasey.com, that lists their arguments and contact information for elected officials.

The Monsignor William J. Casey Overpass is the elevated section of Route 203 over Washington and South streets, next to the Forest Hills MBTA Station. Built in the 1950s, it has become too expensive to maintain and is now due for replacement.

Most of the project’s materials, meeting minutes and documentation are available on the project’s website, massdot.state.ma.us/CaseyOverpass.

Comments can be sent to the city liaison, John Romano, at [email protected] or 617-973-7028.

Updated version: This version corrects the bridge supporters website address rebuildcasey.com. It also corrects the spelling of Beth Worell’s name.

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