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Morton Street Bridge construction stirs old traffic concerns

Posted by Cara Bayles  December 14, 2010 02:21 PM

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The Morton Street Bridge project, scheduled for completion in June 2012, will use federal stimulus money to try an unusual technique: build the structure off-site and install it over the course of 10 days. Done the traditional way, the project could take more than two years.

Yet for all its innovation, the project is reviving an old concern for the neighborhood: transportation. Mattapan is home to Route 203, a major thoroughfare, yet mostly consists of small streets -- a combination that often makes even ordinary traffic a nightmare.

At a community meeting Monday night, residents expressed worries about the impact of the work on bus routes, which will be altered while the bridge is closed. The 21 Bus will run on Norfolk Street instead of Morton Street because the MBTA wants to maintain a direct route between Forest Hills and Ashmont, according to MBTA planner Greg Strangeways.

Strangeways was more flexible about the route the 26 bus will take during the construction. Originally, the MBTA had proposed a temporary path that more closely mirrored the normal 26 route, but it traversed smaller residential streets, and neighbors protested it, Strangeways said.

The newly proposed route, which has the 26 going down Washington Street and making a triangular detour on Gallivan Boulevard and Morton Street to turn around, will not go near the Morton Street Commuter Rail stop, which is usually en route. Residents who normally take the bus to the commuter rail worried whether they'd have to take time off from work during the construction project.

State Representative-elect Russell Holmes suggested the MBTA find a better spot to turn the buses around that would allow them to stay on route. He pointed out that Economy Plumbing on Morton Street had already offered its lot as a space for buses to turn around during the construction period.

The traffic detour route was also a concern, since the 2.5 mile detour off Route 203, a major commuting road, would bring more traffic into Codman Square in Dorchester, which is already congested with commuter traffic. That too prompted officials to echo their concerns about a lack of options after they were told to keep traffic off residential streets.

Officials also boasted that they'd waited until public schools were out to begin the project. But according to the Boston Public School calendar, the last day of school is June 21 (it will be later if school is cancelled because of snow days), which is eight days into the 10-day bridge project.

Hiring practices were also a major concern of residents. The project contract, which will involve both demolition of the existing bridge and installing the new one, will all go to one contractor and will be held to state workforce goals, which recommend that 15.3 percent of the jobs be given to people of color and 6.9 percent to women, officials said Monday.

But they could not guarantee that the contractors or subcontractors would be local, since law prohibits federally funded highway projects from giving preferential treatment to local companies.

Residents were outraged, and said that this ran counter to the point of minority hiring guidelines, which were supposed to create jobs in communities like Mattapan. They cited other projects, like the Fairmont corridor and Talbot Avenue commuter rail station, which was awarded to Barletta Heavy Division, a contractor based in Canton.

"If you get a contractor who bids from the Bershires, do you really think he's going to hire minorities from here? He's going to bring people in from the Bershires?" asked Arthur Smith.

John Lozada, the director of civil rights for the state's transportation department, said that the federal government was unlikely to give preference without a statewide disparity study.

"We can't fight discrimination until we prove he exists," he said. The state hasn't done a study since 1994, but Lozada expects that one will be commissioned in a few months.

Matt Hopkinson, the project manager for the Morton Street Bridge, said the meeting was one of several to take place and that officials had already responded to many of the community's concerns.

MassDot will pay the overtime for extra emergency services. Police will work both sides of the bridge doing traffic control, and the fire department will station an extra truck on the Norfolk Street side of the bridge to respond to any emergencies while the bridge is out. They've added a railing to the pedestrian portion of the bridge for slippery winter months, and installed better lighting, with a bulb every 50 feet.

"Those are the things that public participation does for you," Hopkinson said.

E-mail Cara Bayles at carabayles@gmail.com.

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