By Stephen Quigley
“This will be impactful,” was the way that MassDot official Mike Fielding described the impending closure of the Sumner Tunnel to all traffic for the entire period of July 5 through August 31 at a virtual public meeting that was held last week. The good news is that for the past year, officials have been monitoring traffic flows and road detours and gathering knowledge during the time when the tunnel was closed during the past 30 weekends. ”We have built upon the lessons from the weekend closures,” officials echoed. The bottom line is that the tunnel, which was built in the 1930s and is used by as many as 39,000 cars daily, needs a lot of repair work. The tunnel was moved to the high priority list in Metro Boston in 2018. Some of the repairs using the latest in technology that will be accomplished are: Replacing the ceiling; demolishing and replacing the tunnel deck; removing the panels from the walls; installing new LED lighting; installing a new fire alarm system; and restoring the roadway itself. All of these repairs will take time to accomplish and, given that this is a major artery connecting several highways, it is expected that traffic nightmares, which already are evident during the weekend closures, will increase exponentially, especially during the weekday rush hours. The original repair plan called for the tunnel to be closed for four months in 2023. In order to mitigate the impact, it was decided to divide the repair project into two years over the summer months when both local school traffic and general traffic volumes that traverse the tunnel would be the least. This major closure comes at a time when the tunnel already has been closed for more than 30 weekends to do other repairs, including work on the ventilation buildings and systems. Traffic in and around the Ted Williams Tunnel during the weekend closures have shown shortcomings, admitted MassDot officials. On the MassDot website there are alternatives modes of transportation, including the MBTA, ferry service from East Boston, and some common-sense suggestions such as avoiding travel at rush hour. “Think ahead,” was the basic theme of the advice to those listening to the presentation. Throughout the process, there will be working groups consisting of participants from Chelsea, East Boston, Winthrop, Revere, and Everett. MassDOT officials emphasized that keeping the project on time and the cost on-target are the primary goals. Knowing that East Boston will bear the most impact, the presentation was then open to questions. One viewer queried whether it would be possible to keep the bridges over Chelsea River open to vehicular traffic during peak hours in order to prevent gridlock. However, it was noted that those bridges are controlled by the Coast Guard. Many participants urged smoother T service that would help people seek an alternative means of getting to work. Others requested extended hours for the Blue Line. One person wanted bicycle transportation allowed on the T, which is not allowed presently. MassDOT officials said one measure they are undertaking to ease traffic flow is working with Chelsea officials to improve the traffic lights in getting motorists quickly to Route 1. Increased police at key intersections to keep the traffic moving was also suggested. In addition, some wondered whether the toll discounts to resident drivers would still be honored on the Ted Williams Tunnel and the Tobin Bridge. One piece of good news is that there should be no lane closures around the airport, as has been happening in the recent months. After this summer’s two-month closure ends, motorists will still not be out of the woods, as there will still be a few remaining weekend tunnel closures — and then we will get to do this all over again in July and August, 2024. Info for motorists from MassDOT: MassDot has set up three ways to report a problem or to get the latest information regarding the Sumner Tunnel project, which are as follows: The Hotline number is 508-510-2920; [email protected]; and Mass.gov/sumner-tunnel-restorative-project.