|The proposed location of the interchange on Interstate 93, with average daily traffic counts from 2009.|
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With its potential to create upwards of 11,000 new jobs, as well as relieve chronic traffic congestion, the Interstate 93 interchange project along Andover, Tewksbury, and Wilmington was deemed too important by US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for continued delays.
But nearly two years later, local officials say the estimated $180 million project has not made much progress, and they fear that a lack of federal dollars could delay it indefinitely.
“We had an awful lot of attention and hoopla for something that’s not happening. We’re really stalled,” said Carole Hamilton, Wilmington’s planning and conservation director. “There’s a desire in the communities to move this forward. However, having said that, if we keep being told that there is no funding and that it’s not even on the horizon, then I don’t think any of us want to spin our wheels.”
At a meeting in the Pfizer pharmaceutical company’s offices in Andover in October 2010, LaHood made a commitment to a group of stakeholders, along with federal, state, and local officials from the three communities, that the federal government would cooperate with the project.
He punctuated his statement by granting Tewksbury an exception from a federal requirement that would have forced town officials to connect a narrow residential road to the new interchange. The exception cleared a logjam that allowed the three communities to agree to an alternate road connection plan from Tewksbury to the proposed interchange.
Steven Sadwick, Tewksbury’s community development director, said the communities remain willing to make the project work.
“There is no death knell as far as I know,” he said. “No one has said it’s done, but we’re not going forward with it. It has slowed down.
“You would’ve thought that things would’ve moved a lot more quickly, but I try to be a realist and I know it takes time when dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.”
The project, led by the state’s Department of Transportation and the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, would create a new interchange on I-93 between exits 41 (Route 125) and 42 (Dascomb Road), known as the Lowell Junction, as well as widen the highway from three to four lanes in each direction up to the New Hampshire line. The proposed interchange would open up 700 acres of inaccessible land in Andover, Tewksbury, and Wilmington that would be ripe for development.
If the landlocked parcels are developed, planning organizations estimate job growth to be between 4,500 and 11,600, generating tens of millions of dollars in new state revenue and millions in local property taxes.
US Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat, remains optimistic about the project. “As we know, projects of this scale are extraordinarily expensive, have to compete with other projects across the state for other funding, and require significant amounts of federal funding,” she said. “The reality is that there hasn’t been a federal transportation bill that’s been passed that would have the funding needed for a project of this scale. . . . We can’t lose sight of how much progress has been made.”
The project has been lingering in the environmental review process, which is estimated to need another year for completion, said a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. Once completed, a draft environmental impact statement would be forwarded to federal highway officials. In a statement, the Federal Highway Administration said it remains committed to the project and stands ready to support it once the state moves forward.
But with funding in limbo, it’s difficult to know exactly when the interchange portion of the project — once estimated to be completed by 2016 — will move forward, said Dennis DiZoglio, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission, one of the regional planning agencies involved in the process.
“I’m not surprised, because there are a lot of transportation needs in Massachusetts. . . . There is more demand than there are available funds,” DiZoglio said. “We’re talking about 10,000 jobs; there’s currently 6,000 in that area. Whether or not it would be realized immediately, it’s the key that unlocks the potential. Without the interchange, I don’t think you’re going to unlock that potential.”
The last meeting of the Tri-Town Task Force, made up of officials from each community to work on the project, was in late 2010. Since then, there was one other meeting last spring of the towns’ planning directors and state officials. The meeting addressed the results of a feasibility study commissioned for the zoning plan prepared by the three communities in anticipation of new development on the landlocked parcels.Continued...