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Life in the slow lane

Commuters living south of Boston have one of the worst drives in the state

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / December 19, 2010

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Driving into Boston can be a commuter’s worst nightmare.

For those who live south of the city, the trip is especially frustrating during the morning rush hour. Traffic gets backed up on the highways into the Hub. The Braintree split is a mess. And once you have reached the Southeast Expressway, a large electronic message board tells you — at least it did until early last week — that it’s “8 minutes’’ to get through the high-occupancy vehicle lane.

Only 8 minutes? Yeah, right!

Such is the daily grind for thousands of suburban motorists who drive to work each day. The traffic doesn’t seem to let up; it seems to have gotten worse. And what was up with that “8 minutes’’ sign? Since summer, the sign had stood frozen at 8 minutes, when in reality the drive often took much longer. The sign stayed the same as if to mock commuters and didn’t come down until last Tuesday, after a Globe reporter inquired about it.

But the 8-minute estimate was not a twisted joke, assert state officials. That’s how long it’s supposed to take to travel the HOV lane — if the vehicle in front of you is moving and you’re going the speed limit, that is. The sign hadn’t been updated because the state no longer has a contract with SmartRoute Systems, the company that provided the drive-time estimates, said Richard Nangle, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

The contract expired on May 31. “So we will no longer be reporting travel times for the HOV until we can figure out a way to provide accurate updates,’’ Nangle said on Wednesday.

But the tiresome rush-hour commute is here to stay, unfortunately for many of us.

Folks south of Boston have some of the worst commutes in the state, with those in Cohasset, Scituate, Norwell, and Halifax facing among the 10 longest, according to the latest US Census figures.

Globe staffer George Patisteas drives from Rochester with his wife by taking Route 24 to the Southeast Expressway, where he usually hops into the HOV lane. He said he saw his commute times getting worse after Labor Day, and noticed traffic jams without any obvious explanation. So he began logging his drive times, to see how long it actually took him to get to work.

State officials say rush hour typically becomes “appreciably worse’’ in September and October, compared with the summer.

“Traffic volumes on I-93 and Route 24 continue to rise on a year-to-year basis as more people move to the area and use the major roadways,’’ said Nangle. “In addition, traffic increases each year in the fall as schools open and families return from summer vacations and resume their daily commute.’’

Construction projects — like the one underway at the Neponset River Bridge — can also slow down traffic and add to the congestion.

“MassDOT has certainly undertaken more road and bridge projects this year than ever before across the Commonwealth, and construction schedules are organized to minimize traffic disruption during peak periods,’’ said Nangle.

And of course, the junctions where major highways connect are perennial problem spots, especially when the roadways are heavily used at all times, never mind during peak commuting hours.

The troublesome Braintree split, where the Southeast Expressway, Interstate 93, and Route 3 converge — carries more than a quarter-million vehicles a day.

“The Braintree split . . . that one is by far one of our more confusing roadways,’’ said Marshall Hook, spokesman for MetroTraffic Control, which provides helicopter traffic reports for news stations including WBZ Radio. The company’s helicopter flies out of Beverly and patrols the region’s major highways twice a day, from 6 to 9 a.m., and from 4 to 6 p.m.

And the stretch between the end of Route 24 and the Braintree split is “among the busiest in the state,’’ said Charles Kilmer, transportation program manager for the Old Colony Planning Council.

“You have all those routes coming together,’’ he said. “That’s a major bottleneck. There’s just so many people on the road. . . . If you get an accident in that area, it’s like a domino effect.’’

And accidents do happen, often because drivers are distracted from the tedium of commuting by other tasks or gadgets.

“All these smartphones. . . . You have people checking messages, e-mail, and texting while driving. That’s a big problem,’’ said Kilmer. “It’s amazing how many liberties people take when they’re behind the wheel.’’

He said he has spotted drivers reading magazines, newspapers, and books — or even shaving with an electric razor in one hand, the steering wheel in the other.

“I’ve seen people using a laptop’’ while driving, he said. “What are they doing?’’

Meanwhile, traffic flow is always hampered by construction — even if the work is being done on a different road.

A stretch of Route 128 is being widened, and that construction could have affected traffic on Route 24, the highway used by Patisteas, said Hook.

(Nangle said the Randolph/Westwood Route 128 add-a-lane project is expected to be complete by spring 2012, and the roadwork in Dedham is “substantially complete.’’ For the latest travel updates and alerts, motorists could go to www.mass511.com.)

Recent bridge construction projects over Route 24 also may have had an impact on traffic flow, said Kilmer, because drivers typically slow down when they pass by construction vehicles and workers.

Another problem with Route 24 is the road itself.

“Route 24 has that dual personality, like Jekyll and Hyde. It goes from one extreme to the other,’’ said Kilmer. During off-peak hours, especially at night, traffic flows freely and drivers tend to speed. Then, during rush hour, the roadway is choked by congestion.

Route 24 was built in the 1950s as a limited-access highway from Randolph to Fall River.

As the suburban population grew and more homes were built, traffic more than doubled — from roughly 40,000 cars a day in 1979 to nearly 87,000 in 2005. Today, more than 100,000 vehicles travel Route 24 daily.

The section of Route 24 south of Route 139 used to get 62,850 vehicles per day in 1980 (that includes both directions); by 2007, it was getting 114,300 vehicles per day, according to Kilmer.

And that notorious area where Route 24 meets I-93 and the Route 128 ramps used to get 55,330 vehicles per day in 1980; in 2007 that figure had grown to 128,101 vehicles, said Kilmer.

“Capacity is definitely an issue in upper reaches of Route 24,’’ said Kilmer. “Part of the problem is the split at the top. There’s so much traffic going through that area.’’

Many problems also stem from Route 24’s outdated design: The ramps are not up to interstate standards. Exit ramps are short and curve sharply, which causes backups onto the highway, and no room in the breakdown lane.

And so it goes.

Overall, Hook doesn’t believe traffic is much worse than before. “If you look historically, post-Big Dig, things are generally very good,’’ he said. “If anything, traffic is lighter in a lot of places.’’

Patisteas reports that traffic on his route has eased up a bit since Thanksgiving. And the electronic sign at the opening of the HOV lane no longer offers that fake promise of “8 minutes’’ to Boston.

But most seasoned commuters south of Boston don’t expect their rush-hour commute to get better than during these couple weeks.

Just wait till next year.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

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