Thursday, May 31, 2012

MassDOT has built a bypass from ear to ear

McCarthy overpass. (courtesy: LivableStreets)

Today there was a community meeting in Somerville regarding the upcoming repairs to the McCarthy Overpass of the McGrath highway. MassDOT representatives led by Frank DePaula came to explain that they were about to go ahead with a repair to the deficient structure. Approximately two hundred people came to the meeting, including many folks from STEP and LivableStreets. Every resident and every elected official strongly demanded that the overpass be demolished instead of repaired. And yet, by the end, it was clear that the representatives from MassDOT were not listening and were going to go ahead with their plans regardless.

The McGrath highway has divided Somerville since the mid-50s when it was built; a time when the desires of outer suburban commuters easily trumped the working class residents of Somerville. It is a classic example of an urban freeway from the era of urban renewal. It was owned and managed by DCR until 2009 when it was handed over to MassDOT in decaying condition. According to one longtime resident, when he complained about the decaying state of McCarthy 10 years ago, the DCR had told him that they were reduced to "buying supplies at Home Depot if something collapsed." They had clearly been negligent in maintenance, and should have never been in the highway building program to begin with.

The city of Somerville, led by Mayor Curtatone (who was present) has long maintained a desire to see the McCarthy overpass removed and McGrath transformed into a walkable urban boulevard. To that end, MassDOT has commissioned a study which, in a few years time, will come up with some recommendations for doing so. Then they will submit an EIR/EIS which will take another few years for approval. They are hoping to implement the urban boulevard sometime in the next 10-15 years. The residents of the city made it abundantly clear on multiple occasions that this is a completely unacceptable time-frame. The McCarthy overpass must be removed now. Unfortunately, it seems that MassDOT is determined to hide behind the cowardly excuses of "need more studies" and "finding consensus" so that they can spend $11 million on repairing a structure that every single resident wants torn down. They have their consensus: I have never seen a community meeting with people so united.

Even sadder, it appears that this repair option is a potential disaster. An independent mechanical engineer, Stephen Kaiser, performed a review of the same data that MassDOT engineers had assembled. He found that currently the bridge deck slab is only capable of supporting a 15-ton two-axle truck. However, the slab is not up for repairs this time around, and only one section is worse off than that. He proposed a moderate solution of repairing only the one bad section and saving the rest of the money and time, while accelerating the boulevard plan. The other major point he brought up is that the estimated per-ton-year cost of repairing the bridge ($450,000) was over twice as large as replacing the bridge ($175,000), and about 20 times higher than doing minimal repairs and demolishing the rest ($23,000). Repair is simply an astonishing waste of money.

The long-time resident who had pressured DCR also pointed out that the spalling of concrete had reached beneath the rebar and, according to most engineers, that means it is simply impossible to recover the original strength and durability of the bridge. There is no option but to replace or remove it, anything else is simply window-dressing. Another resident revealed that he had himself personally worked on the grounding of the West Side highway in New York. He said that it is highly likely that any attempt at repair of this overpass will result in further sections crumbling and failing, because it is so far gone. A MassDOT project managed chimed in at this point, promising that if this happened, they would cease the repair program immediately.

One woman noted that the so-called short-term "pedestrian improvements" were pathetic: some extra stripes of paint on the ground did nothing against 45mph traffic, and the stairs to the overpass were crumbling just as badly as anything else. Several residents spoke up about how dangerous they felt as both pedestrians and drivers on the bridge: in one woman's words, "it's not drivers vs people -- everyone hates that highway." Another said that she didn't feel that her kids were safe walking to school -- unlike Boston, there is no busing program in Somerville.

MassDOT project manager Steve McLaughlin and other MassDOT administrators who spoke continued to reiterate that while they supported the notion of an urban boulevard, they needed 10-15 years to achieve it, and much more funding than $11 million. The purpose of the repairs was to give them that window, they said. If they did not repair the bridge then it would probably have to be closed down shortly. At this point the whole room burst out clapping and cheering, "close it down!", and "we don't want it!" But, like every other comment, this simply did not make an impression, as I confirmed later when I spoke to Steve afterwards.

I also questioned him about the draft EIR for the urban boulevard. An official had mentioned that even one objection to that plan could slow progress down to a crawl. But, somehow, even though 200 people, the mayor and elected officials all objected to the repair plan, that was not enough to stop it. Could he explain that? He refused to give a straight answer.


  1. I hate the McGrath Highway, but I don't see how turning it into an "urban boulevard" will improve matters. It's a wide, unwalkable road full of traffic moving at high speeds. The biggest issue for me is how wide Somerville's streets are -- Washington Street is 6 lanes there when it's 2 everywhere else, Highland Avenue is 6 lanes where it meets McGrath. Those streets are wide enough that they could be built over with decent-sized buildings and still have room for some Really Narrow Streets. Also, 10-15 years makes sense because shutting down the highway then would coincide with the Green Line extension.

    1. I agree that Somerville has too many too wide roads. But McGrath highway has actually been found to have traffic levels comparable to Mass Ave in Cambridge. The current vision is to ground McGrath and make it into a 4-lane surface street with traffic lights. I think they could go further and make it a 2-lane road like Mass Ave in Central.

      As for the time-frame, many of the residents who chimed in were older, and they were worried that MassDOT was just trying to wait around until they were gone. Not only that, but traffic patterns have changed significantly since the 90s, and the McCarthy Overpass actually impedes the cross-neighborhood travel which is now more prevalent. So it isn't just about improving things for the GLX, but also improving things for pedestrians, bicyclists and also drivers right now.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.