Jul 30, 2014
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OPINION: 'Ground McGrath Now'

The author, Steven Nutter, argues the state shouldn't wait to take down the McGrath Highway.

OPINION: 'Ground McGrath Now'

The author, Steven Nutter, a Winter Hill resident, is a member of the Grounding McGrath Working Group and Livable Streets, although the following commentary represents his personal opinion and not the opinions of those groups: 

On Tuesday, September 20th, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation held their first public meeting on the current status of their planning study on the McGrath Highway. The study, now renamed "Grounding McGrath," comes out of several years of efforts by the city of Somerville and others to "fix" the McGrath Highway. For a long time, all the clamoring by those that have to deal with an outdated and inefficient design, whose intersections and connections form a roller coaster-like road, did not produce much more than apathetic resistance from the state. Then the Accelerated Bridge Project came along. After the Interstate 35 bridge fell in Minneapolis in 2007, Massachusetts examined all the bridges in the state. The McCarthy Viaduct, the elevated portion of the McGrath Highway, was found to be deficient and slated for replacement.

And then something wonderful happened. The newly integrated MassDOT took a step back and asked, "What if we just took it down?" Now, we have the "Grounding McGrath" study, which puts us in an excellent position: We get to fully study the effects of what would happen if we took the "highway" out of McGrath.

But time and deterioration doesn't wait for studies to be completed. The 60-year-old McCarthy Viaduct is crumbling before our eyes, mostly due to our New England winters and the water infiltration the freeze-thaw cycle brings. This process accelerates as time goes on, and within a few years, weight restrictions will force the heaviest of trucks off the elevated portion. This dilemma presents us with an opportunity for change to better our communities along the entire Route 28 Corridor.

The Grounding McGrath study is a worthy long-range exercise. Its forward-thinking and coordinated approach is something we've rarely seen from state agencies. But the study is planning for 25 years in the future, in 2035.

In the meantime, the state will soon be sending out a $14 million advertisement to fix the viaduct for 10 to 15 years.  This is $14 million dollars of taxpayer money to fix a road everybody hates and serves no one well. The fix will not clean up confusing and inefficient intersections that back up traffic every morning. It does not address the multiple pedestrian crossing issues or lack of curb cuts, cross walks or traffic-light timing. It doesn't address the 60 years of community degradation caused by the highway. It "fixes" a road nobody likes so we can all live with it another 15 years. It fixes a road with a construction timeline that will reduce capacity by nearly half for two years. Two years of sitting in traffic much longer, every morning and every evening. (Editor's note: Making the $14 million in short-term repairs, referred to here, would take two construction seasons, according to MassDOT. During that period, construction would cause lane clusures on McGrath Highway.)

MassDOT argues this money has to be spent now or else it will go away. That's not good fiscal sense, not with taxpayer money. Why buy something you don't want just because you have the money?

There is another, more rational way through this dilemma: Ground McGrath now.

Fourteen million dollars would go a long way to simply demolishing the McCarthy Viaduct and moving the current lanes to ground level on a temporary road, keeping existing capacity. Only two intersections would need to be worked out: Washington Street and Medford/Somerville Ave. This is a quick endeavor. A good traffic planner and traffic engineer team could do this work in a few weeks of solid work and with the confidence and trust of their leaders and the community.

Demolishing the viaduct now would also allow the "Grounding McGrath" study to focus on the things that really matter, namely planning for strong, healthy, local communities along an important regional artery with access to a newly completed Green Line Extension and a permeable Community Path that will connect downtown Boston with the communities to the north and west. We know the viaduct is coming down; why beat around the bush?

Roads are the physical products of community cooperation. The McCarthy Viaduct is a decades old mistake that has severed communities and cost us lives in accidents and health problems. The viaduct is a barrier that divides our wonderful city. We are the determinants of what our neighborhoods should look like and how we should move around and through them. Mr. Davey, tear down this highway.

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