Stop MassDOT from repairing Somerville’s McCarthy overpass

A Somerville Journal guest column
It seems like the same old story for our city. The state continues delaying the long-promised Green Line but pushes unwanted repair of the McCarthy overpass ahead of completing the planning study to remove the overpass despite strong opposition from community. We still have one small hope of removing this overpass – a public hearing is scheduled for next Thursday.

Several years ago the city of Somerville requested the state (MassDOT) conduct a study to determine alternatives to keeping the McCarthy overpass on McGrath Highway between Somerville Avenue and Washington Street. Anyone walking or driving around and on the overpass can see that it has deteriorated, since the overpass was built in the early 1950s in a way that had no benefits for or consideration of the neighborhoods it intersects, let alone how difficult and unsafe the roadways are for drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists. For 60 years Somerville residents have put up with the ugly and unsafe monstrosity that reminds me of Somerville’s very own Berlin Wall. So, it was with great relief and enthusiasm that the state agreed to consider removing the overpass.
In June 2011, MassDOT convened a working group of Somerville and Cambridge elected officials, city staff, residents and advocates to begin studying de-elevation of the McCarthy overpass. The study was renamed Grounding McGrath – Determining the Future of the Route 28 Corridor. The study included the first Health Impact Assessment (HIA) in the state for a transportation project that is being led by the Mass. Department of Public Health to address environmental health concerns and promote opportunities for improved health.
The minutes from the first meeting note the goal of “…potential removal of portions of the elevated roadway within the city of Somerville and to enhance access for all modes of travel … to not only balance the needs of transportation uses but to facilitate connections along the corridor, and encourage development that will have a positive impact on the surrounding neighborhoods and the region as a whole.”
On March 7, 2012, the most recent working group meeting, several alternative designs were presented and discussed. It was agreed at the meeting to consider a fourth alternative. Currently, all of the proposed designs are being analyzed.
At that meeting working group members thought that things were moving along as planned and believed that the next phase would be approval of a design and start of planning and design for the alternative with some temporary safety issues addressed while this was taking place. However, a few days after the March 14 MassDOT/MBTA board meeting, where the main focus was on the new MBTA fare recommendations, community advocates learned that MassDOT had something else in mind about the overpass. Without notifying community members of the working group they prepared a Request for Proposals (RFP) to repair the overpass, a contractor was selected by MassDOT and the contract was voted on by the MassDOT Board on March 14 to spend $10.9 million to “temporarily” fix the overpass.
Since everyone agrees the overpass is not in good shape, some work to address safety concerns is justified. However, MassDOT’s expensive temporary fix is not really temporary because they expect it to extend the useful life of the overpass for 10 to 15 years.
So what can we do to prevent getting what we don’t want?
Advocates for the removal of the overpass have proposed alternatives to repairing the overpass to MassDOT that will address safety concerns. We recommend that the MassDOT contractor begin preliminary work to remove the overpass while making safety improvements for pedestrians and vehicles in the area. This approach facilitates moving ahead with the recommendations from the grounding study and the HIA to address air pollution from traffic, improving traffic safety, access to active transportation and transit, without jeopardizing the economic development goals for Inner Belt and Brickbottom articulated in the city’s comprehensive plan and by the mayor and other elected officials. It is hard to imagine a successful Washington Street Green Line station when essentially half the potential riders are barred from accessing the station by our very own Berlin Wall.
MassDOT has agreed to hold a last-minute community meeting about our overpass May 31 at 6 p.m. at the Argenziano School. The MassDOT meeting agenda focuses on telling U.S. why they must fix the overpass as-is. Our intention is to discuss alternatives with MassDOT representatives about spending $10.9 million to maintain the overpass from 10 to 15 years. This money from the state’s Accelerated Bridge Program should be used to begin removal of the overpass to improve access for not only cars but also for pedestrians, transit users and bicyclists. Perhaps more importantly, repairs should help knit our city back together.
Ellin Reisner is president of Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership