Continuing the theme of collaboration established in the February 23 Task Force Meeting, Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver opened the latest Task Force Meeting on June 3 by outlining the latest developments in this project’s saga that began in earnest in 2014. Using funds made available from fees generated by air rights projects now being constructed over the Turnpike, $75 million is planned to be spent on Phase 1 of the Multimodal project: structurally reinforcing the existing Turnpike viaduct in the narrow “Throat” portion of the project site along the Charles River. This work will help to provide a safer viaduct as the initial phase of the larger project. Later Mr. Gulliver made clear that MassDOT is looking to further refine the All At-Grade design, which is strongly supported by a consensus of municipalities, advocates, and other stakeholders and elected officials. Up until now MassDOT support for this alternative has been lacking, and so this new approach is a major turning point for the project.
Mr. Gulliver also announced that the MBTA has awarded a preliminary design contract for design of a South Side Maintenance facility for commuter rail locomotives and coaches in Readville. This too is a significant development because two of the alternatives for replacement of the Turnpike viaduct require multi-year interruption of rail access from lines south of the Charles River to the principal maintenance facility in Somerville. With a Readville facility in operation, a major impediment to selection of the All At Grade option would be removed.
Finally, Administrator Gulliver indicated that MassDOT is moving ahead toward completion of an environmental Notice of Project Change before the end of 2021, with the intention of selecting a Preferred Alternative with or before issuance of that documents. The NPC will update the state environmental process on changes since the Draft Environmental Impact Report was issued in 2017. Following state certification of the NPC, work on state and federal environmental reviews for the Multimodal project will resume.
Michael O’Dowd, who has overseen the Multimodal project from the beginning, presented details of the current MassDOT approach. The need for the Phase 1 repair work was made clear by recently completed structural condition inspections that revealed accelerating deterioration of the viaduct that has been in service since 1965. Loss of structural integrity for cross girders and stringers that support the roadway deck, deck joints and bearings that no longer function as designed, and deteriorating concrete columns need attention at numerous points in the 29 span viaduct structure. Design of repairs will be completed by 2021, with work in the field beginning before the end of 2022, continuing for about two years, including night and weekend lane reductions to allow work on the deck.
Currently, the MassDOT and consultant design team are working on refinements of the Modified All At grade alternative to move four feet of the edge of Soldiers Field Road out of the river, which could be accomplished by a combination of adjustments such as narrowing the Soldiers Field Road travel lanes from 11 feet to 10 feet, and seeking additional easements along the Boston University property line.
Another MassDOT effort involves determining how to address a concern stated by the Federal Highway Administration that this option needs to be out of the current flood plain elevation, which may require raising the Turnpike profile by two feet in the Throat area. Administrator Gulliver said that MassDOT is seeking greater clarity on this issue.
Finally, three upcoming Task Force meetings on July 15, September 9, and October 21 were announced, accompanied by a pledge to release relevant material in advance of the meetings – a request made several times in the past by Task Force members.
Comments by elected officials highlighted the importance of moving ahead with the South Side Maintenance Facility, the desire to resume in-person or at least hybrid Task Force meetings, and appreciation for making repairs while also focusing on the at grade option.
There was further discussion about Soldiers Field Road lane widths and the MassDOT intention of maintaining the 24 foot pavement width on each side of the road despite the DCR parkway standard of 10 wide lanes.
Emily Norton of the Charles River Watershed Association urged MassDOT to consider reducing the corridor cross section to move the roadway away from the river by reducing the number of Turnpike lanes and begin by conducting a traffic study on whether or not the lanes are needed. Administrator Gulliver said that maintaining the current number of lanes is in the project’s Purpose and Need, and they will not be reduced.
Fred Salvucci offered opinions on the flood plain issue, citing the Turnpike low point is passing under Commonwealth Avenue and to the east which is below the flood plain elevation. He also said that lane widths should not be rigid, additional property may be available from Boston University and that rail alignment should allow more flexibility there, and that Section 4f analysis of impacts on parkland call for all practical planning to mitigate impacts suggesting that analysis of traffic demand that determine the need for Turnpike lanes should be conducted.
In response to a question by Galen Mook about the poor condition of the Cambridge Street bridge, Mr. O’Dowd said that a program proposed in 2016 has now been funded that will support rehabilitation of the Cambridge Street bridge and footbridges in addition to the $75 million Phase 1 repairs.
Ari Ofsevit urged MassDOT to study the need for eight Turnpike lanes in the Throat since the traffic bottleneck seems to be Newton Corner to the west.
Representing A Better City, Tom Nally welcomed the approach for next steps described and suggested: