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Bowing to Pressure, MassDOT Will Fast-Track Traffic Calming in Somerville’s ‘Corridor of Death’

Walking from one side of McGrath Highway to the other along Mystic Avenue requires pedestrians to cross multiple highway ramps and and along a "sidewalk" in the middle of the highway.

Walking from one side of McGrath Highway to the other along Mystic Avenue requires pedestrians to cross multiple highway ramps and and along a “sidewalk” in the middle of the highway.

Under intense pressure from Somerville advocates and elected officials, MassDOT Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver reported on Monday afternoon that the agency would accelerate key safety improvements around the intersections of Mystic Avenue and the McGrath Highway ahead of a three-year highway viaduct repair project in the area.

At Monday's meeting of the MassDOT Board of Directors, Gulliver briefed board members on the three hit-and-run killings that drivers have committed in the area, and two projects that his agency is planning there.

"The area around Mystic and McGrath does have existing facilities for pedestrians; however, these are antiquated facilities, built 30-plus years ago, and they are definitely in need of modernization," he said.

As we reported here in February 2020, MassDOT has been planning a safety improvement project for the area. In early 2020, that project had a $5 million budget, and was mostly focused on basic accessibility upgrades to sidewalks and crosswalks, and would have done little to actually tame traffic.

But at a virtual design public meeting last December, MassDOT presented more ambitious plans that showed 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.

Gulliver said that the project "has doubled in size and scope this past year" because "it became clear from the feedback there was more work to do."

A final public meeting for the safety improvements project has yet to be scheduled, though, and Gulliver told the MassDOT board that, because the agency is still designing a more comprehensive suite of improvements, "we're still a couple years from those improvements being done."

Meanwhile, MassDOT is moving ahead with a highway maintenance project that will repair the I-93 viaduct.

The agency's decision to prioritize the highway project ahead of safety improvements has rankled local advocates and a number of elected officials, and on Monday, Gulliver promised that the agency would make some safety improvements happen before the viaduct repair project begins in earnest.

"In an effort to deliver as many of those improvements ahead of time as we possibly can, I've directed our engineers to review the scope and limits of that upcoming project along with the viaduct project," Gulliver told the MassDOT board on Monday. "We're going to accelerate many of those improvements that we know are not going to change between now and that larger project... ones that we know we can put into place now."

Gulliver said that the short-term changes would be implemented under the course of MassDOT's regular maintenance activities, and with a change-order to the viaduct repair project – scheduled to go under construction in December – that would "ensure that those improvements are in place before major construction gets underway."

According to an accompanying slide in Gulliver's presentation, some of the safety upgrades under consideration for the short-term work include:

    • Raised crosswalks for the Kensington Connector underpass
    • A signalized crosswalk across McGrath Highway at Blakeley Avenue (between Foss Park and the Stop & Shop supermarket)
    • Construction of a raised median island to calm traffic on Mystic Ave. southbound at the Kensington Connector
    • Installation of electronic speed feedback signs
    • Removal of some physical barriers at crosswalks

Gulliver also acknowledged that a recent public hearing for the agency's viaduct project "did not go well" and said that a rescheduled meeting on June 30 would focus more on the safety improvements being planned.

Also at Monday's meeting, the MassDOT board authorized a contract for a project that will repave McGrath Highway and convert two general-purpose traffic lanes into buffered bike lanes later this year – a project that could set a precedent for additional traffic calming and lane reductions through the McGrath/Mystic intersection.

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