After workers complete upgrades on bridges and tunnels to East Boston, Cambridge and Chelsea, the focus will shift to transportation improvements in the burgeoning South Boston Seaport, according to state transportation officials.
The large number of projects either underway or close to their start points were already in the pipeline ahead of the $500 million tax law passed last week and aimed at funding transportation, and generally involve repairs to old structures. Work in South Boston will tune up transportation options in an area that is in the midst of a transformation from an expanse of parking lots to a high-tech hub.
“The next area of attention would have to be the South Boston waterfront because of all the development of the South Boston waterfront area, partly spurred by all the transportation improvements, traffic congestion has gotten progressively heavier in that area, more and more companies are moving there,” Mass. Department of Transportation Highway Administrator Frank DePaola said in an interview.
DePaola said the state is considering work on the bridges across the Fort Point Channel, the MBTA is eyeing improved connections to the waterfront from North Station, and Boston is using federal grant money to purchase two ferries for “better waterfront connections there.”
Before pivoting south, officials have plenty of work to complete in the northern part of the city.
For the next three and a half years, Boston road improvements will be centered around renovating the Longfellow Bridge to Cambridge, the Callahan Tunnel to East Boston, and the Tobin Bridge to points north. Those projects will be coordinated with the MBTA, as it completes a new Orange Line station in Somerville, finishes work on Orient Heights and overhauls Government Center, which links to East Boston and beyond. The T is also making signal upgrades along the Red Line in Dorchester, a line that will undergo some temporary weekend shutdowns as work continues on the Longfellow where the Red Line passes from Kendall Square to Charles/MGH station.
With some preliminary work already underway, the MBTA is nearing construction of the major trolley extension bringing the Green Line along existing commuter rail tracks from East Cambridge, through Somerville to Medford, and next December the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority will temporarily shut down one side of the Massachusetts Turnpike in the Prudential Tunnel for two weekends to replace insulation panels.
“We’re trying to fit these things all together to maintain a certain level of lanes available for vehicle use,” DePaola said.
Along with the Longfellow, MassDOT is renovating three other bridges across the Charles River – the Anderson, linking Harvard Square with Allston, which is already in the construction phase, and the River Street and Western Avenue bridges, where work will commence after the Anderson Bridge is complete. MassDOT already completed rehabs of the Boston University Bridge and the Craigie Bridge near the Museum of Science. The only bridge across the Charles not part of the current slate of rehab projects is the Harvard Bridge carrying Massachusetts Avenue from Cambridge to Boston. Repairs to the Bowker Overpass linking the Fenway area to Storrow Drive will likely begin in the spring of 2014, DePaola said.
“It’s been a while since these facilities have been touched,” said DePaola. The 2009 transportation reform law that created MassDOT transferred the Charles River bridges and the Bowker from the former Metropolitan District Commission, and the Tobin from the Massachusetts Port Authority.
“When we’re done the Charles River basin should be renewed and have about 75 years,” said DePaola, noting that work over Charles bridges has been underway for three years.
Work on the Longfellow shut down one side of the bridge, starting July 20, barring motor vehicle traffic from Boston to Cambridge, though the demolition work on the other side has yet to begin as officials wait out a “two week trial” to determine if the traffic diversion causes major problems. The closed roadway has been virtually empty while transportation officials gauge the success of the detours.
“So far, it’s working out well,” said DePaola, who said there have been no issues with emergency vehicles getting to the hospitals in the area, the lane closures have improved access for bicycles on the bridge, and the number of police officers directing traffic will likely be reduced after the two-week trial has concluded. Work is currently underway beneath the bridge.
Transit and highway officials have been meeting and coordinating work schedules to attempt to stagger projects that slow commutes from one neighborhood or along one rail line.
With the Callahan Tunnel to East Boston scheduled to close from Dec. 27 to the middle of March, Transportation Secretary Richard Davey has directed the MBTA to delay the planned closure of Government Center, scheduled to begin a two-year shutdown next spring, until the Callahan is complete, MBTA Assistant General Manager of Design and Construction Ed Hunter told the News Service. He said there are several fully accessible stations nearby which riders can use during the overhaul.
“We have excess capacity on the Orange Line going north. We’re going to put additional trains on the Green Line southbound to ease the transfer, so it seemed like a good station to be able to close since it’s really close to all the other stations where people would be able to get on,” Hunter said.
The Callahan work is waiting until the winter, because a weather-dependent repainting and repair job on the Tobin is currently underway and expected to be complete by then. Orient Heights is on track to re-open in October, Hunter said.
The MBTA is hoping to complete upgrades around the JFK/UMass Red Line station by the end of the year, so the older systems will have been replaced in time for the winter and so it is completed ahead of Red Line closures across the Longfellow. Work at Oak Grove should be complete by the end of the year, and the new Assembly Square Station – the first new rapid transit rail station in decades– should be complete by next summer, putting an end to the reduced speeds Orange Line commuters have experienced north of the city, Hunter said.
The $1.3 billion Green Line Extension will build a new Lechmere Station, and add new stations at Brickbottom, Gilman Square, Lowell Street, and a Union Square spur, in Somerville, along with Ball Square on the Medford line and College Avenue in Medford. Hunter said those constructions, which are along commuter rail lines that run out to Fitchburg and Lowell, will not cause major backups for motorists, because they will be mostly confined to the train track area.
DePaola said going forward, MassDOT hopes to conduct regular maintenance to avoid the need for major overhauls, and he said that MassDOT aims to keep congestion along the Charles River steady during the construction.
“The traffic congestion should remain relatively stable for this construction period, including all these bridges. And then when it’s complete, hopefully there’ll be a net increase in not only traffic lanes, but these traffic lanes will be accompanied by much better pedestrian and bicycle accommodations,” DePaola said.
A completion of the Red Line upgrades and Blue Line station rehabs will not spell the end for transit construction projects in and around Boston, Hunter said.
“We have an old system. And our state of good repair backlog, I think everybody knows, is quite extensive,” Hunter said. He said, “There’s always going to be a project on our system.”
As work continues to the north of the city, transportation officials will begin planning for improved routes to the area Boston has been dubbed the Innovation District, along the waterfront. DePaola said the movement of Vertex Pharmaceuticals from Cambridge’s Kendall Square to the waterfront will require improved transit options from North Station, as many Vertex workers commute from north of Boston.
The Silver Line, a dedicated bus line with a route running from South Station, through South Boston and out to Logan International Airport, opened about a decade ago.