McGRATH HIGHWAY REPAIRS: The Occasional Superiority of Short-Term Solutions

Both Advocates and Public Agency leaders can find a number of lessons in the multi-level effort to deal with the McGrath Highway corridor in Somerville – which has resulted not only in a commitment from MassDOT to explore ways to eventually replace the crumbling neighborhood-dividing “Chinese Wall” with a less intimidating ground-level road, but a short-term plan to significantly  improve transit, pedestrian, and bicycling facilities as part of short-term repairs to the McCarthy Overpass section.

For Advocates, the continuing struggle reinforces the need to combine protest, lobbying, and partnership in their strategic mix.  It illustrates that Advocacy is vital because most technical decisions are politically determined.  McGrath had been studied for years, it wasn’t until everyone – over a dozen community groups, the city, and the legislative team – came together that ideas turned into action.

For Public Officials, the McGrath developments show that it is possible to retain professional oversight and exercise legal responsibility while opening the door to broader input.   Listening to others, even those with no official standing or technical credentials, increases rather than decreases public respect and often leads to better solutions.  Even more humbling, but even more important: doing something significantly different from past practice requires first acknowledging that it is a challenging paradigm shift and that neither the Agency nor its traditional set of vendors may have the expertise needed for the job.

And for everyone, there is the lesson that at times, such as when the political and/or professional environment is rapidly changing, when it’s best to slice off small parts of a big job, to play with temporary pilots and experiments, and to push off some decisions into the future.

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FROM REPAIRS TO RETHINKING

The core issue was (and is) what to do with the McGrath-O’Brien Highway corridor, including the McCarthy Overpass at its center.  Like much of this nation’s infrastructure it was (and is) falling apart.  Should it simply be replaced, overpass and all?   Does the remaining amount of pass through traffic along with anticipated future development of the adjacent areas justify increasing the road’s car and truck capacity?  Or does the shift of most through traffic to I-93, the coming of the Green Line extension, the desire to re-connect the adjoining neighborhoods, and the recognition that creating walkable-bikeable-transit-friendly communities is vital for economic growth lead to a design that eliminates the overpass, reduces the size of the road, and recreates the series of city streets and blocks that existed before McGrath ripped through?

Originally, MassDOT intended to use the first option: simple replacement.  But after a series of escalating protests, organized by a broad coalition of community groups that LivableStreets Alliance helped bring together, and the subsequent supportive push-back from both city government and elected state representatives, MassDOT’s District 4 (the local office in charge of the project) announced a “Grounding McGrath” study process to reconsider the long-term options.  Success came not only from the protests but from the ability to present credible alternatives:  LivableStreets’ ability to present technically sophisticated alternatives, the bike-friendly path to prosperity envisioned by Somerville Mayor Joseph Curatone, and the clear message from MassDOT’s downtown Executive Office that they wanted the agency to become more multi-modal.

It’s a study, not a committed design.  And it already seems that MassDOT engineers will propose something merely one step down from a highway:  a multi-lane road lined with sidewalks and trees but optimized for through-traffic, which they call a “boulevard,” rather than a set of city blocks designed to reconnect adjoining neighborhoods.  But it’s still an open question, subject to the same political pressures that forced it onto the agenda in the first place, and therefore a huge victory.

THE FREEDOM OF TEMPORARY

Grounding McGrath is a long-term issue.  In fact, the current controversy was sparked by District 4’s announcement that it intended to do a ten-million-dollar “fix-as-is” repair to the overpass that would supposedly keep it going for another 15 or more years.  LivableStreets began the campaign by asking “why spend so much to fix something that shouldn’t be there in the first place?”  The Grounding McGrath Study victory was made possible by the injection of ultimate purpose and social value into the discussion.  The key issues changed from “How can we solve our immediate safety crises while keeping cars moving?” to “What kind of city and neighborhood do we want to create as we grow?”

Just as important, by making the long-term design an open and separate question, the Advocates created political space for a much more flexible approach to the short-term repairs.     The Advocacy campaign mobilized people who wanted safer and more convenient bus stops and street crossings, end-to-end bicycle facilities, and less air and noise pollution – as well as, it turned out, the ability to use some of the corridor space for community-building, small business, and arts activity.  To their credit, and probably not merely because their state leadership publicly said so, District 4 leaders understood that the ground had shifted. Even more important, they understood that they needed help building solid plans on the unfamiliar territory – hiring a new consultant with experience and commitment to progressive, multi-modal transportation.  And they had to really listen to community suggestions, not just from the city but from the Advocates and non-professional citizens who came to the meetings.

The result, the still-evolving design for temporary improvements to the overpass area of the corridor, includes radically redesigned street crossings with new signals, the closing of an existing off-ramp and tunnel, the insertion of bike lanes and even an experimental “bike priority shared lane” throughout. It’s not perfect:  an edge line or (even better) a bike lane might be better than the “priority shared lane” on parts of Medford Street, an additional bike box is needed on Medford Street, some curbs should be repositioned to protect the “Dutch Left” turning area and to create a cycle track in the “punch-through”, etc.  But it’s astonishingly better than what currently exists or what would have been done under the original “fix-as-is” proposal.  Best of all, these temporary plans create a natural experiment, a chance to show that making the area more pedestrian and bike friendly won’t stop car traffic or kill local businesses. And if, instead, these small, reversible, and relatively inexpensive steps make a positive difference, the public’s inherent nervousness about change will be soothed.  Doom-predicting critics will have a harder time scaring the community about what will happen if the changes, or others like them, are included in the final designs and made permanent.

WHEN TO JUMP; WHEN TO STEP

This bold but incremental approach is not appropriate for every situation.  As has been often said, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” – when everything is up for grabs, Advocates should go for game-changing, high leverage possibilities (as I wish the Obama Administration had done during the financial speculation crisis).  Or when the political balance of power is temporarily tilted towards your side, it’s smart to go for maximum demands.  Or when the big picture, transformative vision is exactly what you are promoting rather than any particular segment, then you may have to position yourself in an all-or-nothing situation.

But there are many more times, especially when the larger decision-making context is going through radical and rapid change in a positive direction, that it pays to chop off a little piece of a larger effort and kick the rest of the can down the road.  The smaller piece can be used to pilot, test, and educate the public (and Public Officials) about the viability and benefits of new approaches.

DIVIDED WE FALL

It is instructive to compare the outcome in the fight around the future of McGrath with what’s happened during the fight over the Casey Overpass in Boston’s Forest Hills neighborhood.  They both started at about the same time.  But the Casey moved more quickly and was focused on a final solution rather than a temporary repair.  As a result, the stakes were higher and the fighting both more divisive and intense:  almost no one wanted to recreate the collapsing old bridge but the huge amount of uncertainty about future traffic amounts and patterns led to a contentious split between those who wanted a smaller bridge versus those who wanted a surface-level approach, a split that grew more acrimonious through the very long series of public meetings.

As it turned out, MassDOT eventually decided on the surface option.  But the split in the Advocacy community made it hard, even for the pro-surface option majority, to push MassDOT much beyond their own analysis and comfort levels.   It is likely that MassDOT’s traffic projections are, as usual, too high: leading them to include too many traffic lanes, wide and pedestrian-unfriendly intersections, and a controversial bus stop placement – deficiencies that refueled the pro-bridge group.  (There are also some good aspects:  Pedestrians and Cyclists have separate, 10’-wide, individually signalized crossings and there is an off-road bike path.)  However, the continuing Advocacy disunity reduces the political maneuvering room and makes it hard to create the united political pressure needed to force MassDOT to accept what might otherwise be winnable improvements in the current proposal.

In contrast, while the long-term fight over the future of the McGrath corridor isn’t over, a combination of hard work, united effort, and fortunate sequencing has put it on the path to victory.  We now have to make sure that our temporary victory sets the stage for final triumph!

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Thanks to Mark Tedrow, Kevin Wolfson, Steven Nutter, and Mark Chasefor feedback on previous drafts.

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Related previous postings:

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

FIXING THE FUTURE McGRATH/O’BRIEN CORRIDOR: A Six-Lane Boulevard Is Still A Highway

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

NON-MOTORIZED HIGHWAYS: A Regional Green Routes System To Connect Municipal Bike Networks, Sidewalks, and Parks

 

 

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