Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) chief Richard Davey pledged more transparency in the Casey Arborway project in an exclusive Gazette interview with him and other top officials at MassDOT headquarters last week.
“We have to continue to work hard to earn the community’s trust, so they don’t expect the worst from the DOT,” Davey said. “We’re going to double down in improving that trust and openness.”
While Davey did not outline specific actions the design team plans to take, positive steps have already been taken. In response to requests from the project’s Design Advisory Group, MassDOT sent out materials relevant to this month’s meeting several days ahead, so DAG members would have time to study them. The meeting was scheduled for Wednesday evening, after the Gazette’s deadline.
Co-Project Managers Steve McLaughlin and Paul King and City liaison Katherine Fichter joined Davey for the Gazette interview.
Since last year, community Design Advisory Group (DAG) members have been requesting traffic data, analyses and communications that impacted various decisions in the Casey Arborway project, including analyses that informed the decision to demolish the Casey Overpass.
Many of those requests have yet to be answered, though some information has been released as a result. Some of that data, Davey said, was created specifically to answer a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, something MassDOT is not required to do.
“We want to get information to the DAG members in a timely manner,” Davey said.
MassDOT officials told the Gazette during the interview that no records exist of earlier requests for information that eventually were released due to the FOIA request. They directed further community enquiries for information to Fichter.
“Kate [Fichter] can hold us responsible to make sure we turn over the information,” King said.
McLaughlin added that many requests are for information and analyses the design team doesn’t yet have, as it’s too early in the process.
The community’s ongoing concern with MassDOT’s perceived secrecy extends back to the project’s beginnings, from the unpublicized first meeting of the WAG in March 2011.
The decision to demolish the Casey Overpass in favor of a surface street-only plan was also fraught with controversy focused on state-conducted traffic counts, which were perceived by many as inaccurate.
Comparing the original project traffic count, conducted in June 2010, to a recount done in December 2011—at the DAG’s insistence—the 2011 data shows a higher number of cars crossing the Casey during that 24-hour period, a little over 26,000 cars.
The 2010 count showed 24,000 cars crossing the Casey daily.
“A difference of 2,000 cars a day is not a huge variation in an area like this,” King said.
McLaughlin pointed out that the more recent data actually showed lower numbers during peak hours. Peak hours are the two one-hour periods in the morning and afternoon when traffic is at its highest and most congested.
“We design to accommodate peak hour,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t think the growth we projected [at the beginning of the project study] will occur.”
The design team has previously referred to the original traffic growth projections as “robust,” and many team members have stated that they do not believe 2035 levels of traffic will rise to meet projections.
MassDOT introduced an “opening year” variation last month, so called because it is aimed at accommodating 2016 levels of traffic, the year the new Casey Arborway is expected to open. It has fewer lanes than the full 2035 design, though it leaves space for lanes to be added when necessary. Combined with other changes to the total design, it is a reduction of up to 22 feet of pavement for pedestrians to cross.
As for the deteriorating condition of the overpass, MassDOT is conducting frequent inspections to ensure it remains safe until it is torn down in late summer or early fall of 2014.
Usually, overpasses are inspected every one to two years. The Casey is current being inspected every three months, McLaughlin said.
“It’s a dog chasing its own tail,” King said of potholes on the overpass. “As soon as you fix one, another pops up.”
The MBTA also continues to be involved in the Casey process, Davey said. Among other concerns, the project team is mindful of the future Arborway bus yard and is careful to not design anything that could eventually conflict with that project.
“There’s been a lot of coordination,” Davey said. “It’s a singular opportunity here for us to remake Forest Hills, to take some highway money to help our poorest sister agency [the MBTA].”