Walls come tumbling down

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May 16, 2013, 7:51 pm
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(NECN: Peter Howe, Somerville, Mass.) - First there was Boston’s hulking Central Artery being torn down and replaced with a Greenway. Then last year the state’s decision to blow up the Casey Overpass in Forest Hills and replace it with a surface parkway instead of spending $110 million rebuilding the elevated structure.

And the city of Boston has torn down the Sullivan Square, Charlestown, overpass as it works on plans to scale down Rutherford Avenue from a freeway to a city-scaled boulevard and bike path.

Now Somerville is the next part of Greater Boston where state officials and community activists are agreeing: It makes fiscal and environmental sense to tear down some of the collapsing icons of the 1950s expressway culture and replace them with city-scaled streets infinitely friendlier to pedestrians, bicyclists, and surrounding homeowners and businesses.

As it unveiled a long-range plan for an elevated stretch of the McGrath Highway (Route 28) through Somerville Wednesday night, the key decision made by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation: All the options to be pursued going forward will be plans to raze and replace, not rebuild, what’s known as the McCarthy Overpass, extending from Medford Street over Somerville Avenue to the Cambridge line. It may be years, or a decade, before the McCarthy overpass is gone and the new road is built. But for Somerville, it’s now clear the future won’t involve a state effort to rebuild it.

"It is the model of urban blight,"’ Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said in an interview Thursday. He grew up barely 50 yards from the elevated stretch of highway, hating how it cut East Somerville off from the rest of the city.

As the structure began to fall apart and the state started developing plans to spend tens of millions of dollars rebuilding it, Curtatone said, "The city and the community said: 'Hold on. Let's look at this as an opportunity to really right the wrongs of the past, and really improve our quality of life.'"

Frank DePaola, highway administrator with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the McCarthy overpass is among many 1950s and 1960s structures as examples of an era where "really they didn’t consider the bicycle and pedestrian movements as the major thing. They were trying to accommodate cars and vehicles."

After evaluating traffic counts and commuter movements – and considering plans to add extensions of the MBTA Green Line along existing railroad tracks to Union Square and up past Ball Square and Tufts University to West Medford – DePaola said, "We’re looking to actually make that a surface road, which will be much like a six-lane boulevard going through that same corridor, opening up access for that whole area."

Neighborhood activists and groups like the LivableStreets Alliance www.livablestreets.info envision making the scaled-down Route 28 a Somerville version of Boston's post-Central Artery Greenway, with bike lanes and more greenery and redevelopable real-estate parcels.

“People are really looking for the McGrath Highway to become just another city street, that just blends into the community like any other street,’’ said Charlie Denison, a Somerville resident on the alliance’s board.

Denison said there are many similarities in why local people have wanted the Route 28 overpass in Somerville, Route 99 overpass in Sullivan Square, and Route 203 overpass in Forest Hills to be yanked down. "There are these structures that were built in the 1950s in the era when accommodating cars and bringing people in from the suburbs was the top priority. That tide has changed. People are looking for alternatives," Denison said.

The Route 28 overpass was once the principal route into Boston from the north, but it was largely superseded by Interstate 93 in 1973. Traffic studies now show that most people using the stretch of highway are actually drivers moving around within Somerville and Cambridge, not people heading from Medford to Boston, Denison said, and the multi-level highway is carrying about as many vehicles a day as Massachusetts Avenue in Boston’s Back Bay – a four-lane road with some bike lanes and two parking lanes. That is all the more reason why the future McGrath highway "“needs to be part of the community rather than something that goes through the community." The new at-grade boulevard "is really going to be the best solution for reknitting the neighborhood together and really undoing the scar the McGrath Highway has caused upon Somerville for so many years."

Today, there is significant work underway on the McCarthy overpass, about $10 million worth of emergency work to shore up crumbling lanes and bridge walls.

DePaola said that while the state’s long-term vision is razing the overpass, in the near term, “We just couldn’t let it stay in its current condition without doing something.” DePaola estimates it could be 8 to 10 years before the new McGrath Highway with no McCarthy Overpass is completed. "We have to do preliminary engineering, we have an environmental permitting process, and we have to secure the necessary funding," DePaola said, but added, "We have the opportunity to put that on the ground and knit these two Somerville neighborhoods together."

"It doesn't happen overnight," Curtatone said, "but the fact that we're heading in that direction is really positive."

With videographer Scott Wholley

Tags: massachusetts, Peter Howe, Somerville, Route 28, Joseph Curtatone, McGrath Highway, Massachusetts Department of Transportation, Frank DePaola
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