Traffic backs up on Route 3 in Hanover. A private group has proposed building a toll lane to alleviate congestion.
Traffic backs up on Route 3 in Hanover. A private group has proposed building a toll lane to alleviate congestion.
Michael Dwyer/Associated Press/File 2004

Relief from rush-hour traffic on Route 3 south of Boston would be welcome news, residents and local leaders said last week, but they are cautious about a proposal that would accomplish that goal through new toll lanes and a public-private partnership.

A former Massachusetts deputy transportation secretary, Ned Corcoran, leading a group of unidentified private proponents in the fields of design, construction, and financing, has proposed widening Route 3 for about 9 miles between Braintree and Norwell.

In a one-page paper describing the project, Corcoran’s group indicated it planned to build a dedicated high-occupancy toll express lane in either direction. Although the plan did not go into detail, typical “HOT” lanes, as they are called, allow buses and car-pool vehicles to use the express lane for free but charge solo drivers a toll. Some have the ability to change pricing in real time to encourage a smooth flow of traffic in the express lane.

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The South Shore Chamber of Commerce has long supported adding a lane on Route 3, but has not taken a position on the new proposal, according to chamber president Peter Forman. Widening the highway might require only one extra lane that would reverse direction with rush-hour traffic, similar to the high-occupancy “zipper” lane on the Southeast Expressway, he said.

But Forman said an alternative financing method, such as a public-private partnership, is in the South Shore’s interest because the region needs a solution to congestion on Route 3 and the state does not have the money to fund all of its necessary transportation work.

“This could be a potential solution to the Route 3 problem,” he said.

Norwell Selectman Gregg McBride, who says that he knows Corcoran and that Corcoran often comes up with good ideas, said the proposal is creative and could provide some traffic relief. Any expansion, however, “needs to be part of a broader transportation policy for the South Shore,” he said, adding that such a policy should be geared toward getting people out of their cars, not toward making car travel more convenient.

The South Shore Coalition, which represents 13 municipalities from Braintree to Duxbury and is part of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, opposes widening Route 3. The group is concerned about the environmental effects of highway expansion and believes future plans should focus on public transportation, said coalition chairwoman Ann Burbine.

Traffic is “just horrific,” she said, and she believes widening will only encourage more cars, not solve the problem.

In Weymouth, town traffic engineer Georgy Bezkorovainy said private involvement might be a good idea, especially if it has worked in other states. But he warned that drivers could divert their travel onto local roads to avoid paying the toll, causing hardship to the surrounding community.

Jim Boudreau, town administrator in Norwell, questioned what the price of tolls would have to be to recoup the project cost, identified in Corcoran’s proposal as at least $350 million. He called the proposal “a novel approach” but said he wanted to see more details, such as whether the extra lane would end at Norwell or pass through the town.

Given the cost and hurdles, action could be a long way off, he said. “At this point, I’m not holding my breath.”

Just south of the proposed high-occupancy toll lanes, in Marshfield, Town Administrator Rocco Longo initially said the public-private partnership seemed “far-fetched” because it would require a significant change in state policy. But after reading about the proposal, he said in an e-mail that he would like to learn more about it, because economic development is a priority for the Board of Selectmen.  

Massachusetts Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Verseckes, asked about earlier reports that his department  was not interested in widening Route 3 south of Boston, called the plan “an intriguing idea” and declined to say whether the agency was against it. He did say, however, that transportation department  has no Route 3 widening project in development.

“We don’t have anything even designed yet,” he said. “It’s not the kind of thing we could build tomorrow.”

Such a plan would require a significant amount of study, including environmental study and public hearings, he said. Asked about the Department of Transportation’s philosophical position about highway widening versus public transit, he replied, “In a perfect world, we would do both.”

USA Today reported in December that toll lanes whose prices rise in real time as traffic increases are becoming more common and could represent the future of urban expressways.

Such lanes have opened recently in Los Angeles and on the Capital Beltway in Virginia.

Corcoran cited the Beltway as an example of a similar project; he was part of a group that considered bidding on the work.

In Massachusetts, his proposal is unsolicited. The state would have to conduct a competitive bid process. An early, unsolicited proposal can sometimes have the upper hand, though, because it “sets the bar” for other bids, he said.

In addition to the new lanes, the Corcoran group pledged to reconstruct 15 bridges and incorporate planned improvements to some Route 3 interchanges.

Corcoran said he believes the state does not oppose the idea but is trying to gauge public opinion.

“People are trying not to be out front on it,” he said.

Decades ago, the state looked at expanding capacity on Route 3, but set the issue aside because there was no money for it, he said.

“This project pays for itself,” Corcoran said. “Many other projects don’t.”