Before Its Teardown, Somerville’s McGrath Highway Could Get A Road Diet

A rendering of the proposed McGrath Highway road diet in Somerville. The project proposes to turn two of the highway's six lanes into buffered bike lanes. Courtesy of MassDOT.
A rendering of the proposed McGrath Highway road diet in Somerville. The project proposes to turn two of the highway's six lanes into buffered bike lanes. Courtesy of MassDOT.

An obsolete six-lane expressway that slices through East Somerville will, by the end of this summer, become a four-lane expressway with wide buffered bike lanes.

MassDOT plans to repave McGrath Highway later this year, and when the project is over, the roadway’s stripes will be repainted in a new layout (pictured above) that will transform the highway’s outer lanes into new buffered bike lanes to accommodate Somerville’s growing volumes of bike traffic.

“This project is an indication of how progressive and courageous MassDOT can be. The road diet is outrageously ambitious for a resurfacing project, and it’s an indication of their willingness to work with us for a safer, calmer McGrath Boulevard,” said Brad Rawson, Director Transportation & Infrastructure for the City of Somerville, in a phone interview on Wednesday morning.

A MassDOT geographic analysis found that McGrath has an extremely high potential to accommodate biking trips, which makes the McGrath corridor is a “prime location to construct bicycle facilities.”

“Protected bike lanes on McGrath would provide a critical north-south connection, which doesn’t currently exist, between Broadway and Cambridge,” wrote George Schneeloch of Somerville Bike Safety in an email to Streetsblog.

But given the high-speed traffic on McGrath, Schneeloch added that he’d like to see some form of physical separation to protect the new bike lanes. MassDOT’s current plans show only a painted buffer between the bike and car lanes.

MassDOT published a new public informational website about the project on Monday, and detailed plans can be viewed here (PDF).

Potential safety benefits for Somerville’s most dangerous intersection

The repaving and restriping project will extend to Broadway, just south of Foss Park, but MassDOT is simultaneously designing a separate intersection project that aims to improve safety – particularly for pedestrians – at the deadly intersection of McGrath, Mystic Avenue, and the Fellsway.

Early plans for the project, first reported here in early 2020, would have provided basic accessibility upgrades to sidewalks and crosswalks but generally avoided major changes to the roadways.

Those designs have been evolving, however. At a virtual design public meeting in December, MassDOT presented plans that included new crosswalks and sidewalks, more traffic calming, some physically separated bike lanes at high-risk intersections, and a new shared-use path under I-93.

However, the plans presented in December also showed a seven-lane cross section for McGrath Highway along Foss Park – just one block away from the proposed road diet:

A proposed new crosswalk and traffic signal at McGrath Highway and Blakeley Avenue (near the Somerville Stop & Shop supermarket) from a December 2020 public hearing on proposed safety improvements at the Fellsway/McGrath Highway/Mystic Ave. interseciton. A separate MassDOT project, beginning one block to the south, would reduce McGrath Highway to a four-lane cross-section. Courtesy of MassDOT.
A proposed new crosswalk and traffic signal at McGrath Highway and Blakeley Avenue (near the Somerville Stop & Shop supermarket) from a December 2020 public hearing on proposed safety improvements at the Fellsway/McGrath Highway/Mystic Ave. intersection. A separate MassDOT project, beginning one block to the south, would reduce McGrath Highway to a four-lane cross-section. Courtesy of MassDOT.

“I think that the (intersection) project does create opportunities to shrink the highway,” said Rawson. “MassDOT is proposing crosswalk upgrades at Blakely Avenue and bike facilities, but the lane assignments remain consistent. The city will work with stakeholders to see if we can do even more, but public comment is open for that design and now is the perfect time to have those conversations.”

Another step towards a reconnected McGrath Boulevard

Originally built in the 1950s, the McGrath Highway predates the existence of Interstate 93, and like many other expressway projects, it sought to increase convenience for white suburban car commuters by demolishing homes and dividing redlined, predominantly Black neighborhoods in East Somerville and Cambridge.

“I deal with a great deal of controversial issues in the city, but the effort to transform McGrath really brings a lot of people from different backgrounds together,” said Rawson. “It is just such a visible, psychological, and visceral scar that divides out neighborhoods.”

The McGrath Highway overpass above Washington Street near Somerville's Union Square, pictured in May 2019. The City of Somerville has embraced a plan to tear down the highway's overpasses, which divide East Somerville neighborhoods and threaten residents with elevated levels of traffic violence and air pollution.
The McGrath Highway overpass above Washington Street near Somerville’s Union Square, pictured in May 2019. The City of Somerville has embraced a plan to tear down the highway’s overpasses, which divide East Somerville neighborhoods and threaten residents with elevated levels of traffic violence and air pollution.

For most of the past decade, the City of Somerville has been championing a plan to demolish the McGrath Highway’s crumbling elevated overpasses and transform the roadway into a calmer surface-level boulevard that knits the surrounding neighborhoods back together.

That plan, which has been in the works for nearly a decade, is still several years from implementation, but Somerville and MassDOT are advancing design work for the project and expect to hold public hearings for it later this year.

The long delay may have a silver lining: where MassDOT’s 2013 Grounding McGrath plan envisioned a boulevard that would have been six to seven lanes wide, the latest MassDOT road diet, with its much smaller four-lane footprint, could save millions of dollars in construction costs for the future boulevard project while also freeing up acres of valuable Somerville real estate for new parks or housing development.

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