When Westwood Town Administrator Mike Jaillet heard that a fourth lane had opened last week on the stretch of Route 128 that connects the town to Randolph, his first words were, “Oh, that is just wonderful, it’s about time.’’
His sentiments are shared by thousands of other drivers who have battled snarled traffic and round-the-clock construction through the area nearly every day for four years. But the benefits aren’t just for commuters; local and regional officials are hoping that an upgraded Route 128 will also be a path toward economic development.
The $53.7 million “Add-a-Lane’’ project, which began in the summer of 2008, is widening a 5.5-mile section of the highway between Randolph and Westwood. The entire project is expected to be completed next year, but drivers southwest of Boston began noticing changes last week, when crews opened three of the completed sections.
Four lanes were added to the northbound and southbound sides from Route 24 in Randolph to Route 9 in Wellesley, and a fifth lane in each direction is being added in the area of the interchange with Route 138, which will be finished around Thanksgiving.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation eased drivers into the new lanes by opening the three sections, each a few miles in length, one at a time last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Orange signs and electronic messages warned drivers of the change, and department spokesman Michael Verseckes said no problems were reported the first few days.
Additional work will need to be done until fall of next year, but Verseckes said the project should no longer affect drivers.
“There will be some work off to the sides [of the road] that may not interrupt travel but will need to continue,’’ Verseckes said. “What people will realize is that they have full beneficial use of that extra lane.’’
Because of the new lane, the previously opened breakdown lane will be closed for travel and used strictly during emergencies.
State highway administrator Frank DePaola said officials hope the change will make the road safer.
“This means that the shoulder will only be used by emergency vehicles, and more importantly, that drivers will also not have to contend with one another when the hours allowing use of the breakdown lane end,’’ he said in a statement.
Eric Bourassa, transportation director for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said he knows the project will relieve congestion, at least in the short term. But he is wary of calling it a long-term solution.
“We are in an area that is very dense, and you end up having a lot of different routes to get somewhere, so what ends up happening is people start trying to get around the packed highways by using local roads,’’ Bourassa said. “Then when it reopens, that [highway] fills back up again.’’
But because the highway may now be used by more people, he said, it will relieve that local congestion and help make areas along the highway more desirable for future development.
“Without a doubt, the land along 128 is valuable, but unfortunately the municipalities have focused that on commercial . . . but I’m sure this project, as it helps relieve congestion, will continue to make those sites desirable for development,’’ Bourassa said.
Development is exactly what Westwood has in mind now that the lanes are opening up and the area will most likely be relieved of its sometimes parking lot-like traffic.
In Jaillet’s view, Route 128 has been an impediment to economic development.
“A company doesn’t want its commuting people or its products stuck in traffic,’’ he said. “That’s a material cost of doing business they will avoid if they can.’’
Now, however, he said he is hopeful that as drivers are rerouted to the main roads, and the fourth lanes open up the highway, Westwood can move forward with a proposed mixed-used project dubbed University Square, near Exit 13 at University Avenue.“We realize the important role transportation improvements can have on continued growth,’’ he said, “and we expect the addition of the fourth travel lane to better handle the roadway’s volumes as well as have a positive impact on the region’s economy.’’
Richard A. Davey, the state transportation department’s secretary and chief executive officer, said the department realized that the project has ramifications beyond relieving congestion.
The Westwood project calls for 2 million square feet of retail, residential, and office space, along with a hotel.
Before the addition of the fourth lane, the development would have had a major impact on neighborhood streets, but Jaillet now is confident that it will move forward more quickly.
“The redevelopment of University Avenue has been absolutely linked to the improvements made to the highway,’’ he said.
“This ensures that there is sufficient capacity to accommodate the project and makes it more economically viable.’’