FIX THE PROBLEM, NOT THE BRIDGE: How MassDOT Can Avoid Wasting $14 Million on the McGrath Highway

It’s both a cliché and a powerful insight to remember that the solution you come up with depends on which problem you are trying to solve.  A road builder sees problems in terms of the need for movement – usually meaning car capacity – and comes up the road expansion solutions.  A transportation planner – as well as a livable communities developer – sees problems in terms of using the built environment as a way to improve peoples’ quality of life and comes up with solutions that stress human interaction.

The elevated section of the McGrath/O’Brien Highway from the Cambridge border to Somerville’s Highland Avenue is old and deteriorating.  Working with people from the more than 20 land development and road planning efforts already happening along the corridor,   LivableStreets Alliance coordinated discussionsthat endorsed five core value/vision statements for what should happen in this area:

  • Reunite neighborhoods cut apart by the highway.
  • Humanize the space by lowering traffic speeds, reducing noise and pollution, narrowing lane width, and reducing the current six (or more) lanes to four.
  • Make traveling across and along the corridor safer and more inviting for pedestrians, bicyclists, and bus riders.
  • Add more trees, grass, storm-water drainage, and other green features.
  • Encourage local retail and job-creating businesses; including crafts-based and green-economy enterprises.

To its credit, MassDOT (through its consultants) is also involving the community in a detailed analysis to decide what to do.  Called “Grounding McGrath,” the study is trying to ground future plans in both facts and desires and potentially represents another sign of “the new MassDOT” evolution from a one-dimensional focus on increasing car capacity to an understanding – and practice – based on the interaction of transportation systems with community wellbeing.

Or not.

At the same time that it’s conducting the Grounding McGrath study, MassDOT is also about to spend $14 million hiring a contractor to “repair” the overpass segment of the McGrath/O’Brien highway – a repair intended to keep the current road functional for another 10 to 20 years.   This significantly undercuts the value of the community-involving study process (and insults the citizens who are donating their time to work on it) by making it impossible to implement the study results using the currently-available Accelerated Bridge Program funding.  And if the repairs are actually just as “temporary” as MassDOT says, it is a waste of precious money that could be used to push the study forward and begin making some of the transformational improvements to the corridor’s roads that just about everyone agrees will be needed no matter what future alternatives are selected.  Worst of all, given the current  fiscal realities, it’s not clear if “kicking the problem down the road” will dump it into a period when there is insufficient money to do anything – and then we’ll really have to start dealing with falling concrete, if not falling cars.

Grounding McGrath

Traffic volumes are significantly lower along the McGrath/O’Brien corridor since I-93 took over the role as a preferred commuter route into Boston from the north – most traffic is now local, using McGrath for short moves between neighborhoods.   The corridor’s car-centric design creates extremely unsafe conditions for pedestrians, the disabled, and cyclists – and poor facilities for people using the bus.  The highway depresses nearby economic development.  And the over-abundance of pavement lacks trees, green spaces, areas to sit or play, and leads to water run-off and air-quality problems.

To their credit, the MassDOT study area extends beyond the overpass to include areas at either end and alongside – a good idea since there are over 20 separate development planning groups already dealing with land along the corridor.  In addition, also to their credit, MassDOT is intending to use the McGrath project as a way to pilot the legally required use of Health Impact Assessments in order to identify potential health problems and suggest ways to avoid or mitigate them before the project plans get locked-in.

The three major options under study are to rebuild the highway essentially “as is,” to replace it with a multi-modal, tree-lined “boulevard,” or to re-established a grid of city blocks and streets that knit together the ripped-apart neighborhoods on either side.   It is not irrelevant that either of the “at grade” options will be so much cheaper than the bridge option that there may money available to make improvements to adjacent areas as well – perhaps even moving the long-awaited Community Path forward another couple steps.

There is a deadline for doing the study and getting the work done:  the Accelerated Bridge Program (ABP) which is the source of funding for all this will expire in 2016 – not all that far away given the complexity of the task.  Fortunately, MassDOT has already found a way to expedite the process.  The Casey Overpass planning process combined community involvement and advanced permitting applications – even though some opponents of the generally preferred at-grade option are now trying to delay a final decision in hopes of being able to rally their forces.  Still, it is likely that a decision about the Casey Overpass will be made and the project will proceed according to schedule – as could the McGrath.

Jumping The Gun

But for some unknown reason, when it comes to the McGrath corridor, MassDOT is suddenly ignoring the community involvement and study and is rushing forward with a $14 million RFP to “repair” the bridge essentially as is.  The repairs are intended to keep the status quo functional for another 10 to 20 years, way beyond the ABP window of opportunity – and given the fiscal state of our public sector (and the aggressively pro-car direction the Republicans are pushing transportation funding policy at the national level), it’s not clear if there will be any money available for other alternatives in the future.

Why is this happening?  What’s the problem?  Sixteen million dollars is a lot of taxpayer money. Yes, the elevated structure is not in great shape, but it’s not falling down – it’s not the real problem.  In any case, the nearby Gilman Street Bridge is in much worse shape but that’s not included in the RFP.  Furthermore, MassDOT already has developed methods for dealing with weakened bridges such as the Longfellow, the Harvard Bridge, and the Casey Overpass – restrict traffic to one lane away from the problem areas.  (Note:  in none of these cases did the closures cause the predicted level of back-ups and congestion — proving the point that car drivers are as smart as anyone else and “if you take it away, they go away.”)  Perhaps MassDOT could even convert the unused elevated McGrath lanes into a protected bike path.  Or, with the addition of some planters and benches (and push-cart vendors!) welcome pedestrians on to a miniature version of New York’s widely successful High Line.

Defining The Problem…A Better Solution

MassDOT only believes that the elevated portion is the problem because they are thinking like road builders instead of transportation planners.  The real problem is that the entire highway is an anachronism – created to serve economic and demographic realities that no longer exist.  Like the Casey Overpass and Charlestown’s Rutherford Avenue, they were built at a time when business and government leaders were willing to rip through inner-ring working class communities to facilitate growth in the upscale outer ring suburbs.  But that time, and the economy it embodied, is dead or dying.  Somerville is now the location for the region’s future growth – if the appropriately facilitating infrastructure is built.

Rather than spend money rebuilding a problem, it would be better to invest in a solution.   MassDOT should push the community study forward and begin preparing documents needed for issuing a RFP and securing permits for each option.  (Unfortunately, MassDOT’s saying that it hadn’t dealt with land-taking and permitting needs as the excuse for delaying the Green Line extension doesn’t create much public faith in its ability to carry out this strategy.  Fortunately, almost no one believes this excuse – the general feeling is that the delay resulted from cash-flow problems.  But still…)

And, if the study doesn’t turn out to be doable in time to allow the construction to meet the 2016 deadline, MassDOT’s own projections are that the repairs will take two “work cycles”  – meaning that the current RFP work could beat the ABP deadline even if they weren’t started until 2014.  And the margin of safety could be perhaps increased, and MassDOT’s new reputation for innovation strengthened, by releasing RFPs for each of the options with the proviso that MassDOT reserves the right to cancel the unwanted option and to revise or even reissue the contract for the desired one based on the results of the study.

But if the repair-the-bridge strategy is taken, no matter what the timing, it is inexcusable not to include at least some improvements to the current situation.  LivableStreets Alliance has created a detailed list of relatively low-cost changes to the corridor that would significantly better safety and convenience for non-car modes:  people taking the bus, people trying to cross the road, people pushing baby carriages, people on bikes… perhaps even moving the long-promised Community Path a couple steps further towards completion.  In any case, MassDOT has to make it clear that these repair-related improvements are not a substitute for a full rethinking, redesign, and reconstruction of the McGrath Corridor.  (Yes, it is hard to believe promises from an agency that hasn’t even fulfilled its legal obligations for Big Dig mitigation….but we have to be hopeful.)

Regaining Public Trust

So we’re left with a question:  Why this rush to construction?  Why this insulting undercutting of the community involvement and decision-making process?  Maybe MassDOT feels that delays on several of their other major projects (such as the Longfellow Bridge) make it necessary to more rapidly spend money on other projects.  But this seems unlikely given the state’s willingness to push back the federal government’s demand for more rapid expenditure of stimulus funds on the grounds that it was better to do things right than to do them quickly.  And the money will be used up by the ABP 2016 deadline no matter which approach is used.  Perhaps MassDOT feels that the delays are pushing too many projects into the same future time period and that it doesn’t have the people capacity, or the state doesn’t have the contractor capacity, to handle it all in the shortening available time.  But there is enough money to hire all the consulting help they need – and the lower-than-expected bids for nearly every recent construction project shows that firms are desperate to get work.  The most cynical possibility is that MassDOT is bowing to pressure from Congressman Capuano who has publically stated his  support for rebuilding the highway “as is” and even for prohibiting bicyclists from using it as soon as an alternative is available – a surprising contradiction to his progressive stand on so many other issues, including national transportation policy.

The good news is that it’s not too late for MassDOT to avoid wasting $14 million on unwanted work.  The RFP has been issued, but MassDOT can withdraw it, or if left out they don’t have to pick anyone, or can just re-issue it as suggested above.

One of the biggest challenges facing Transportation Secretary Davey is how to regain public trust – a necessary precondition for any successful effort to gain the funds needed even to run – much less to maintain or improve or transform – our transportation system.  One place to begin that process is on the McGrath Corridor.

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Other relevant postings include:

>THE THREE SISTERS – CASEY OVERPASS, McGRATH HIGHWAY, RUTHERFORD AVE: MassDOT’s Credibility Crisis and the Need to Work Together

>MOVING URBAN INNOVATION BACK TO THE FUTURE: Reclaiming the Village and the Street

>HEALTH IMPACT ASSESSMENTS (HIA) AND ADVOCACY: Useful Tool or Sophisticated Smoke Screen?

>GREEN LINE EXTENSION: State Needs To Make The Trains Run On Time

>HOW ROADS SHAPE ECONOMIES: Why What Happens to the McGrath/O’Brien Highway, Sullivan Station, and Rutherford Ave. Will Make – or Break – Local Job Opportunities and Community Well-Being In The Entire Metro Area for Decades to Come

>AVOIDING “NIMBY” – Navigating Between Fear and Greed

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