At a meeting in 2017, MassDOT officials, in response to the daily gridlock during the morning commute caused by the reconfiguration of the Sumner Tunnel toll plaza, were forced to admit they used outdated traffic data when preparing for the toll plaza project.
MassDOT officials’ numbers were so off it was almost laughable that a major state agency could botch an important road improvement project in East Boston that was supposed to make traffic better, not worse.
From inadequate traffic studies to poorly attended community meetings before the toll plaza project began, Eastie residents are experiencing a bit of deja vu when it comes to the upcoming Sumner Tunnel project.
MassDOT will close the Sumner Tunnel every weekend for the next 36 weeks starting this Friday (June 10) and then completely close the tunnel for four months in the spring 2023.
At a Webinar last week it is clear residents are becoming increasingly weary of the upcoming project.
One question posed to MassDOT officials at last week’s meeting that captured the sentiment of the community as a whole touched upon the Sumner Tunnel toll plaza debacle.
When asked how the residents of Eastie can trust anything MassDOT says in regards to traffic impacts, timelines, and the community process given the severely mishandled toll plaza project.
“I guess in a general sense the department is always trying to take lessons learned from our previous projects,” said MassDOT’s Dan Fielding in response to the question. “We have the detour route setup through the Ted Williams Tunnel as well as that alternative detour route in and around to try to capture folks that are going to 93 North and have them utilize Route 1A to Route 16 and then over the Tobin Bridge. Right now we’re looking at as many of those types of implementations as well as portable changeable message signs that will give people the most up to date information.”
However, the answer to the question sounded to residents a lot like the plans that were in place before the toll plaza reconfiguration and many knew how that turned out and Eastie has been paying the price ever since.
With the first phase of the project getting underway this weekend MassDOT still can’t confirm if the MBTA Blue Line will be free for Eastie residents as mitigation to the impacts the project will have on commuters living here. A free Blue Line has been something residents have asked at every meeting leading up to this point.
However, some crumbs have been thrown Eastie’s way.
“Current mitigation included for East Boston Residents is that during tunnel closures, East Boston residents active in the East Boston Resident EZ pass program will receive discounts on the Tobin Bridge and Ted Williams Tunnel,” said Fielding, forgetting that Eastie residents already receive a discount at the Ted Williams. “MassDOT is in active discussions to identify other potential alternatives for travel during the four month closure of the tunnel in 2023.”
At a meeting back in May, MassDOT officials never once mentioned weeknight lane closures but the week following that meeting the Sumner Tunnel was down to one lane almost every night. Residents flooded social media with photos and videos of the traffic that looked more like a morning commute than a random Wednesday night at 11 pm
However, MassDOT confirmed single lane night time closures will be periodically in place for on-going maintenance work and preparation work to support the weekend closures.
Some transportation experts have pointed out that traffic coming from Eastie could be rerouted through the Callahan and exit onto the emergency ramp on North Street in the North End and then turn left onto Cross Street. While not ideal, some feel it’s far better than a complete closure of the Sumner Tunnel for four full months. During the Big Dig, both the Sumner and Callahan Tunnels would handle two-way traffic periodically while work was being completed.
Fielding said during the design phase, the idea of using Callahan Tunnel during the closure of the Sumner Tunnel was considered.
“But MassDOT dismissed the idea as it would significantly reduce the capacity of the tunnel and it would make it more difficult for emergency vehicles to get through the tunnel,” said Fielding.
At last week’s meeting, Eastie resident Joanne Pomodoro said the weekend closures and complete closures next year amount to a public health emergency.
“All the tunnels are already difficult to get through and there’re always backups,” said Pomodoro. “My concern is how are EMS ambulances, that can barely get through the tunnels now, get through the Ted Williams ( the only remaining tunnel option to Downtown once the project begins)? Mass General is a hop, skip and a jump for most of us that live here but now emergency vehicles are going to have to go around to the Ted Williams and sit in traffic in that tunnel when minutes and seconds can be the difference between life and death in an emergency.”
Fielding said MassDOT is actively coordinating with the emergency responders as well as Mass General.
“While we’ve been conducting tabletop exercises in meetings with the emergency responders and ambulance services to support their operating procedures,” said Feilding. “We will have tow trucks in place during any of the closures as well as police details.”
MassDOT’s traffic engineer Gary McNaughton said MassDOT would target areas in the vicinity of the tunnel entrance with police details. McNaughton said in the case of an emergency the detail cops will direct traffic away from the tunnel entrance to allow emergency vehicles in. However, it was unclear how the traffic already in the tunnel will move out of the way for emergency vehicles nor what Boston hospitals they will be directed to.