Advocacy Works: MassDOT Re-Prioritizes Basic Safety Upgrades For Somerville
On Wednesday evening, a follow-up public hearing on MassDOT’s proposed I-93 viaduct rehabilitation project found a significantly warmer reception from neighbors and elected officials after the state agency promised to prioritize sidewalk and crosswalk upgrades this year, before a major highway viaduct rehabilitation project begins in earnest.
As reported previously, state highway officials came under fire earlier this year for fast-tracking a $37 million project to repair the I-93 viaduct above Mystic Avenue, while the timeline for a planned $6 million safety project for the sidewalks and crosswalks on adjacent surface roadways, where reckless drivers regularly kill, maim, and threaten residents, remained uncertain.
The highway-first approach faced an intense backlash from Somerville residents and elected officials, many of whom rallied next to the McGrath Highway in May to memorialize victims of driver violence in the area and demand more immediate safety improvements.
In response, at a June meeting of the MassDOT governing board, highway administrator John Gulliver promised that the agency would accelerate key safety improvements around the intersections of Mystic Avenue and the McGrath Highway before the three-year highway viaduct repair project got underway.
Wednesday’s virtual public hearing offered a detailed look at what MassDOT is proposing for the area’s crosswalks and sidewalks. Here are some of the upgrades they plan to build within the next 12 months:
Work has already started at the intersection of Blakeley Avenue, next to the Stop & Shop supermarket, and McGrath Highway – the location where a hit-and-run driver killed Marshall Mac in April.
This week, MassDOT crews were already working to install a new crosswalk, traffic signal, and ADA-compliant curb ramps to facilitate safer pedestrian crossings between Foss Park and the supermarket.
“This improvement was actually activated and put into operation today,” said MassDOT District 4 Highway Director Paul Stedman at Wednesday’s virtual public hearing. “It is not fully complete, but it is up and operational so if a pedestrian wants to cross here they are safe to do so.”
One block to the north, MassDOT is planning new sidewalk connections and significant traffic calming around the Kensington Connector, one of the main walking routes between East Somerville and the Assembly Row development. This is where another hit-and-run driver killed Pauline Richards in July 2019.
MassDOT plans to slow down drivers with a series of raised crosswalks, which give pedestrians greater visibility and also function as speed humps. A new sidewalk in the median of Mystic Avenue will also replace a well-worn goat path, giving pedestrians coming from the west a new, accessible shortcut towards the connector.
Another raised crosswalk (not pictured in this image) will be installed on the north side of the I-93 viaduct, where the Kensington Connector enters the Assembly Row development.
At the main intersection of McGrath Highway, Fellsway, and Mystic Ave., MassDOT isn’t proposing any immediate traffic calming improvements, but the agency will rebuild the area’s sidewalks and crosswalks to bring them up to basic accessibility standards – which will be a significant task, given how almost none of these crossings meet accessibility standards today.
Highway officials are still investigating the possibility of a curb extension to shorten crossing distances and slow down traffic on the northernmost leg of this intersection, where speeding I-93 off-ramp traffic has a free right-turn lane onto the Fellsway.
Finally, one block to the west, MassDOT will upgrade crosswalks at the Wheatland Avenue traffic signal, install a second crosswalk across Mystic Avenue to provide pedestrian access across all four legs of the intersection, and build a new sidewalk on the north side of Mystic Avenue, where the walking route is currently blocked by an old guardrail.
MassDOT also promised attendees that they would undertake a comprehensive study of sound walls for I-93 through East Somerville, which has been a top priority for the neighborhood and its elected officials.
Additional safety improvements, including more involved traffic-calming measures and a possible extension of the McGrath Highway road diet (which, under its current design, will terminate at Broadway one block south of Blakeley Avenue) are still under consideration for a future safety project.
The sidewalk and crosswalk upgrades being built this summer will implement many of the proposals from a larger federally-funded safety project for the area.
On Thursday, MassDOT officials confirmed that these improvements will be implemented through existing highway maintenance contracts, and that the $6 million budget for the future safety improvement project will remain intact for more substantive safety upgrades and traffic-calming changes, including possible road diets.
That safety project is still on track to begin construction in 2023, after design work in finalized in the coming months. A MassDOT official confirmed on Thursday that the agency hopes to host a formal design public hearing for that project later this year.