By Seth Daniel
For the past year, members of the Lower Mystic Regional Working Group have been meeting to discuss ideas, brainstorm solutions and consider possibilities for making transportation work in the quickly growing nexus at the city lines of Everett, Charlestown and Somerville.
Over the past several weeks, member of the Group have reached out to residents in small group settings, and will be having an evening meeting in Everett in the near future prior to another large public hearing in the spring. Meetings have taken place in all three communities, and residents have provided feedback.
At a meeting in Charlestown on Thursday, Feb. 2, several of the plans that have been considered were unveiled to residents for reaction.
The Working Group, which includes Mayor Carlo DeMaria and members of his staff, has ideas from water transportation to activating new I-93 ramps to figuring out how to get people out of cars and out of the regional traffic configuration around the Sullivan Square area. Remarkably enough, everyone is sitting at the table and working cooperatively.
Carri Hulet coordinated the meetings, and told members of the community gathered at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Charlestown that the regional approach has been working well – and that was worth note.
Those on the Work Group include the City of Boston, the City of Everett, the City of Somerville, the state Department of Transportation (DOT), Massachusetts Area Planning Council (MAPC), the Attorney General’s Office, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, MassPort, Congressman Michael Capuano and Wynn Boston Harbor.
The idea is to look into the future – thinking about all the development – and plan for a regional traffic, pedestrian, public transportation and bicycle transportation model that works into 2040.
“One thing that’s interesting and unique about this project is it’s regional,” said Hulet. “It’s just very unique to get the Cities and entities across jurisdictions to come together. I think that’s worth celebrating that this is happening and it’s happening well and really smoothly.”
The Working Group was born out of the Wynn Boston Harbor environmental review process (MEPA). In the final letter of authorization, the MEPA order was for State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack to convene a regional working group to analyze and come up with long-term solutions to the entire area of Charlestown, Everett and Somerville – and most importantly – to include the massive amounts of new development now started and expected to come in the next several years.
The work started in December 2015, and land uses began to be looked at in April 2016, with representatives from MAPC sitting down with the various municipalities and key businesses to find out what development could be expected in years to come. That was added to the existing Land Use Study, which is 25 years old.
The Working Group has been formulating many ideas in that time, but started seeking community input last November. A large public hearing in downtown Boston took place in November, and another of those is expected in May 2017.
In between that, though, smaller group input has been sought, which was the purpose of the recent meetings in Charlestown, Everett and Somerville.
“The theory and rationale for the discussion groups is we need to get some small groups together to get further input between the two bi public meetings,” said Hulet.
The Working Group has come up with seven alternatives and ideas for policy and infrastructure that they are sharing.
They are analyzing those alternatives and the reactions to them through May.
“We think the analysis will go a little bit longer than May,” said Hulet. “Part of that has to do with waiting to see what the City of Boston will decide about Rutherford Avenue. I think a recommendation could come in the fall, probably late fall, but definitely by the end of the year.”
One piece of that plan is called Transportation Demand Management (TDM), and that includes things like steering workers to public transportation by offering free T passes, or by offering occasional incentives to work from home instead of coming into the office.
The example is Kendall Square in Cambridge, they said, where there has been a tremendous amount of development, but also they have reduced the amounts of traffic at the same time.
Some of the practical changes contemplated now include installing a new I-93 northbound on ramp at City Square, an extended I-93 northbound off-ramp at Exit 28 to bypass Sullivan Square and converting the I-93 HOV lane into a general purpose limited access express lane.
For public transportation, they are looking at the possibility of putting a commuter rail stop in Sullivan Square, extending the Silver Line Gateway project from Chelsea through Everett, Sullivan Square, Somerville, Medford and Cambridge to connect with the Red Line. That extension would also connect to a spur of the Silver Line, potentially, that would travel up Broadway in Everett.
Finally, there is a big emphasis on putting in separated bicycle and pedestrian paths through the study area and connecting those to existing off-road bike paths – like the Northern Strand Trail in Everett. There is also the discussion of a River’s Edge Orange Line Station on the Malden River just beyond Wellington Station.
Several Charlestown residents, especially those from the Navy Yard, pushed for more thought to coordinating and stressing the use of water transport.
“We have no coordinated schedule for water ferries,” said Lois Siegelman of the Friends of the Navy Yard. “If I want to go to the Harbor Islands by ferry, it takes all day to get there. It’s just not coordinated. If you go to Bermuda or Zurich or other places, they have it all coordinated. We have lots of dock space, but there is a lack of routes and a lack of coordination. If I wanted to use the ferry to go to dinner in Boston or the theatre, I can’t do it.”
Others mentioned it would be ideal for commuters coming from the north to be able to use bicycle trails that connect to water transportation going to downtown Boston.
Hulet said they are planning on scheduling an additional small group meeting in Charlestown during an evening hour in the coming months, and they would do the same in Everett.
Rutherford Avenue tunnels, underpasses a key to Everett growth
While much of Lower Broadway in Everett is on the verge of exploding with development, a key to that growth will be what Boston decides to do with Rutherford Avenue – particularly when it comes to whether or not to include underpasses for traffic coming and going to Everett.
For some time, the question in Charlestown was whether to have an underpass or not have an underpass. Members of the community there had dug in on opposite sides in a long-standing neighborhood dispute. Now, however, the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) seems to be driving a vehicle of compromise.
The newest plans for the Rutherford Avenue and Sullivan Square corridor won’t look anything like what is there today, but BTD officials hinted that there is likely to be a compromise of existing plans – where a surface deck exists and a tunnel/underpass system also exists.
Jim Gillooly of the BTD said the City would have a meeting on Feb. 28 in Charlestown to go over plans that would likely show a compromise of positions.
Gillooly said the Feb. 28 meeting would give a peek at a potential plan that would include smaller tunnels that go under Austin Street and Sullivan Square. Above those tunnels would be surface decks with the new street grids, similar to what had been proposed in the surface option to begin to connect mainland Charlestown with the “other side” by the Hood Plant and Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC).
“It’s not likely going to be a one or the other situation with the underpass and surface option, but something that builds off of one another – a hybrid,” he said. “Just because a plan keeps the underpasses doesn’t mean it would be what you see out there today. It would still have a street grid at Sullivan Square. It’s whether it works better with an underpass to get the people who don’t want to come to Charlestown through the area…Despite all the good intentions of the surface plan, there are some deficiencies.”