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Somerville’s ‘Grounding McGrath’ Plan Has A New Look, With Fewer Lanes

A rendering of a wide multi-lane intersection with a city skyline in the distance and a bike path along the sidewalk on the left edge of the primary street.

A rendering of the proposed McGrath Boulevard intersection with Washington Street in East Somerville, looking west toward Union Square. Courtesy of MassDOT.

A plan to transform Somerville's McGrath Highway into a narrower, tree-lined boulevard is getting closer to reality.

At a virtual public hearing on Tuesday evening, officials from MassDOT and the City of Somerville announced that work to demolish the obsolete highway could begin by 2028.

'Grounding McGrath' planned for a decade

MassDOT and Somerville have been debating what to do about the McGrath Highway's crumbling overpasses since the early 2010s.

In a 2013 study on the highway's future titled "Grounding McGrath," MassDOT called the roadway "antiquated," with "physically deteriorated" viaducts that represented "an outdated approach to road building."

A grey isometric drawing of a proposed redesign of McGrath Boulevard illustrates a wide double-intersection where McGrath meets Somerville Ave (coming in from the top edge of the picture) and Poplar Street coming in from the bottom right corner and Medford Street coming in from the left. There are sets of traffic lights in the middle and McGrath is seven lanes wide, with a smattering of trees illustrated along the edges.
An older design for the proposed McGrath Boulevard from the 2013 Grounding McGrath study proposed a much wider roadway, based on inaccurate projections of increasing future traffic volumes. Courtesy of MassDOT.

The Grounding McGrath study recommended replacing the highway with a huge at-grade boulevard that would have been 6 to 7 lanes wide (see rendering above).

But despite pressure from former Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone, who wrote in 2019 that “I’d rip down McGrath with my bare hands if I could,” MassDOT's plans collected dust for a lack of funding – until now.

New design features narrower roadway, more greenery

The state's capital investment plan has booked the McGrath project for funding in 2027, which means that MassDOT is finally dusting off its plans and putting the project into the formal design phase.

There's a silver lining to the long delay: the Commonwealth's new designs for McGrath Boulevard feature fewer lanes for traffic, and more space for trees, dedicated bike paths, and potential new housing.

In general, the new street would feature two lanes in each direction for vehicular traffic, plus additional turn lanes at intersections.

A rendering of a proposed McGrath Boulevard overlaid on an existing view of the six-lane highway near Otis Street. A pink line running horizontally through the photo separates the rendering from the existing view and shows how the roadway would be narrowed to four lanes, with the existing concrete median strip removed and replaced by a planted, tree-lined median instead. On the right side, a two-way bike path runs next to a sidewalk and another wide planted buffer strip next to the roadway.
A before-and-after rendering of McGrath Highway/Boulevard near Otis Street in Somerville. The rendering (above the pink line) illustrates how one of the existing highway's six lanes would be converted into a two-way separated bike path, and another lane would be converted into a planted median. Courtesy of MassDOT.

Wider, landscaped areas planted with trees would replace the highway's existing concrete barriers.

The project would also create a continuous, two-way protected bike path along the eastern side of the new boulevard. In many locations, plans call for additional protected bike infrastructure on the southbound side of the new street as well.

The widest part of the new boulevard would be at its intersection with Washington Street, where MassDOT plans a six-lane cross-section to accommodate space for bus stops and turn lanes.

The design also calls for a new two-way protected bike path on the south side of Washington Street between McGrath and the Community Path access point at the East Somerville Green Line station:

An overhead plan view of the proposed McGrath Boulevard at Washington Street. The new McGrath runs diagonally from left (south) to right (north). It features four to five lanes for motor vehicles, widening to six lanes at the Washington intersection, plus two-way bike paths on both sides (shown as a blue stripes) and wide sidewalks (in orange). A westbound dedicated bus lane is also shown on Washington Street. In the lower right a dotted blue line represents the Community Path.
An overhead plan view of the proposed McGrath Boulevard at Washington Street. Courtesy of MassDOT.

Several of the plans that MassDOT shared at Tuesday's meeting included greyed-out areas labeled "tentative design subject to change."

The project's designers are trying to coordinate this project with numerous others that are in the planning stages, including private-sector real estate developments in the Brickbottom neighborhood and new street designs around Foss Park.

An overhead plan view of the proposed McGrath Boulevard between Pearl Street (in upper left) and Broadway (lower right). The new McGrath runs diagonally from upper left (south) to lower right (north). It features four lanes for motor vehicles, a two-way bike path on the eastern side (shown as a blue stripe) and wide sidewalks (in orange. Between Broadway and Pearl Street, parallel local-access streets with on-street parking, labelled Edmands St. and Dana St. provide local access to adjacent homes. Rows of trees line either side of McGrath and a wide median strip in the middle. At Otis Street, a dashed line represents the planned demolition of the existing pedestrian bridge,which would be replaced with at-grade crosswalks across the narrowed roadway.
An overhead plan view of the proposed McGrath Boulevard between Pearl Street and Broadway. Courtesy of MassDOT.

Some neighbors press for an even narrower street

Although the current plans would make McGrath smaller, the proposed boulevard would still be one of the widest streets in Somerville.

During a question-and-answer session after MassDOT's presentation Tuesday evening, several meeting participants asked whether the road could be even narrower. Others suggested repurposing some of the public land for better uses, like housing.

“It’s a little surprising to me that this proposed design would use every single inch of space that’s already taken up by this road right-of-way... This feels like a missed opportunity to decrease the physical footprint of the roadway," observed one meeting attendee.

"We can revisit and potentially revise that configurations and the cross-sections at intersections," responded project consultant Gary McNaughton. "We’ve heard loud and clear, let’s not worry about traffic operations. That is not a goal of this project. We are reducing capacity. We are taking away vehicle capacity. And we will continue to do that as we advance that design we’ll look for further opportunities."

2013 design based on bad traffic forecasts

For the 2013 Grounding McGrath study, highway engineers attempted to predict future traffic volumes with the CTPS travel demand model.

"Automobile trips along the McGrath corridor are expected to increase in the range of 7.5 percent to 12.5 percent between 2011 and 2035, depending on the segment of the corridor," CTPS predicted.

A column chart illustrating average daily traffic (on the vertical axis, from 0 to 40,000) by year (horizontal axis, from 2011 to 2023). The columns decline steadily from right to left, from 35,328 in 2011 to 28,384 in 2015 to 23,205 in 2023.
Southbound traffic volumes on McGrath Highway have declined 40 percent since 2011. Courtesy of MassDOT.

Those forecasts were wildly off the mark. In 2023, the highway's actual traffic volume was about two-thirds of what it was in 2011.

In the busier southbound direction – where drivers often use McGrath to try and dodge traffic jams on I-93 – traffic has declined by over 40 percent.

"We are seeing trends in traffic that continue to reveal that McGrath Highway is overbuilt," said McNaughton, the project's design consultant.

A McGrath busway is unlikely

Several other participants asked about the proposal’s lack of bus lanes.

“It’s not just a matter of what you can fit, but what serves the demand for transit," responded McNaughton. "(During preliminary design) the Silver Line Extension alternatives analysis was ongoing... the MBTA was working on their bus network redesign as well. And quite honestly, neither of those efforts saw this corridor as having a heavy bus transit demand.”

McNaughton added that the project would also rebuild a section of Washington Street with a dedicated bus lane through its intersection with the new McGrath.

The City of Boston recently committed to building center-running bus lanes in its upcoming rebuild of nearby Rutherford Avenue, a similarly obsolete highway.

Extensive design needs postpone project schedule

The project team expects to spend the next few years refining the design.

Several participants at Tuesday’s meeting asked why it can't happen sooner. 

“There’s a lot of moving parts on this project,” said Christopher Cameron, a MassDOT project manager.

The project team needs to coordinate with utilities and adjacent construction projects and finalize environmental permitting.  

“Four years is really the time we’re going to need to get through that process,” explained McNaughton. “We understand the desire to move it along and we agree. But that is the process that we need to follow.”

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