Hybrid Plan:Boston Transportation to Move Forward with Sullivan Square Underpasses

By Seth Daniel

In a standing room only meeting in Charlestown on May 18, the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) announced that it intended to move forward on the long-term Sullivan Square traffic plan with the use of an underpass.

That decision has as much effect on Everett and its commuters and economic development as it did Charlestown, and Everett residents and developers – including Wynn Boston Harbor casino – have been awaiting the decision for more than a year as the community in Charlestown has gone over options throughout the last year.

As the Sullivan Square corridor goes, Everett officials have said, thus goes the future of Lower Broadway in Everett.

In the last several months, what the plans had come down to is a hybrid plan using surface roads and two smaller underpasses (Austin Street and Sullivan Square) versus an older plan (2009) that filled in the underpass and instituted a system of surface streets.

At the May 18 meeting, BTD official Jim Gillooly and consultant Erik Mackey said the City would be moving forward with some form of the hybrid underpass plan – a key piece of planning for the overall Lower Mystic Regional Working Group.

“We think it’s important to keep the benefits of the underpass for pedestrians and public transit above, but also let’s look at the design,” Mackey said. “This was done in the 1950s. Let’s make the slope to the underpass more steep (to take up less room) like we have in other places.”

Mackey explained that the traffic numbers showed around 26,000 vehicles using the current underpass, and by keeping those – as well as the increasing volumes coming due to Wynn and other developments – under the new surface roads, conditions for pedestrians and drivers up top would improve.

He showed slides that explained their studies showed that keeping the underpass improved the miles traveled and wait times (in seconds) significantly. In some cases, wait times were reduced by 50 percent.

Some in the Charlestown crowd did not care for that determination, and challenged the numbers and the decision. A large crowd of ‘Surface Option’ folks attended the meeting, and in the end City officials said they would be going with the underpass despite the vocal opposition – which at times resorted to some modest heckling of the presenters.

“In general, it comes down to a math problem,” said Mackey. “If you have more cars trying to get through an intersection, it’s going to take more time.”

Gillooly said it was going to be a new kind of underpass, and not the hulking thoroughfare that’s there now.

“They are not your grandfather’s underpasses,” he said. “These will be dramatically different…and will be designed to promote safer and slower movements in the corridor.”

The plan calls for one-lane underpasses in either direction, potentially with a stoplight that would be stationed when cars emerge from underground headed towards Everett.

The Rutherford Avenue corridor at Sullivan Square would have three southbound lanes and two northbound lanes.

The underpass at Austin Street on Rutherford Avenue would have two sounthbound lanes and one northbound lane – as opposed to the three and three configuration now.

This would be punctuated by at least three new intersections with traffic signals on the corridor – one at Bunker Hill Community College, one at Mishawum and one at Essex Street. Another might be added at Baldwin Street also. These, they believe, will help movement from the businesses and community college and prevent cars from having to go to Sullivan Square.

Another critical part of the plan is an expansive bike path and linear park along the northern side of the corridor. A dedicated bus lane is also in the plan and comes into play just after the Mystic/Tobin Bridge intersection and continues across the North Washington Street Bridge.

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