Somerville, Massachusetts, a densely packed city of 76,000, just north of Boston, is in a quandary.
On the one hand, plenty of Somerville residents, including Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, want the deteriorated McCarthy Overpass on McGrath Highway removed—quickly. On the other hand, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts says it would take six to eight years to get a replacement planned, permitted, designed, and built. So the state Department of Transportation wants to spend two years and $11 million stabilizing the roadway, even though it's expected eventually to be town down.
For Somerville residents, the prospect of living for six or eight or even 15 more years with a roadway that divides one part of the community from another is frustrating. "Take the overpass down. Take it down yesterday," Mayor Curtatone declared May 31 at the start of a public meeting on plans for the highway.
The road is in poor condition, according to the Somerville Journal. Inspections by MassDOT have found concrete deteriorated and steel bars exposed and rusted. Holes are visible in some of the steel beams. "In its existing condition, the overpass is below the legal limit for load capacity," the newspaper reported.
Last September, the Journal reported, Ethan Britland of MassDOT acknowledged that the City has for many years been interested in removing the overpass. He said the state also wants to eliminate the maintenance costs of the overpass and shape the area for the arrival of the Green Line Extension in the next several years. (The June issue of Better! Cities & Towns reports on the development that Green Line rail service and a new Orange Line rail station is expected to bring to the community.)
The McCarthy Overpass "will join in the long list of possible highway removals that have become so important to successful cities like San Francisco and Milwaukee," Somerville Planning Director George Proakis told Better! Cities & Towns. "Our new comprehensive plan highlights the need to remove this highway and the barrier that it has become between neighborhoods."
"It's no secret that it's a terrible pedestrian-bicycle area, today," Ralph DeNisco, who wprled on the DOT study of the roadway, was quoted as saying by the Journal. Yet Paul King of MassDOT said the repairs and the posting of a weight limit for vehicles will give the overpass another 10 to 15 years of life. That prospect depresses many residents.
Britland explained this May that it would take four or five years to go through environmental processes, followed by two or three years of more design work, plans, specifications, and estimates for replacement of the overpass with a ground-level roadway.
The explanation of why it's necessary to repair a roadway only to eliminate it failed to persuade Boston Globe columnist Paul McMorrow. He wrote this month that the massive redevelopment plans expected in the Green Line corridor will be stunted if the divisions caused by the elevated highway aren't erased.
McMorrow questioned why the highway needs to be kept operating at its current level of service, since nearly 30 percent of its traffic load has vanished since 1995. There's no need to keep it open to trucks, he argued, since they now represent only 2 percent of the traffic on the overpass.
DOT says it wants to help with the changes sought by Somerville officials. But the conventional process for doing that appears to be almost as big a problem as the overpass itself.
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