By G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD –The plan to repair the section of Interstate 91 that runs through an elevated deck through downtown Springfield didn’t receive a positive reception at a public hearing conducted at the Basketball Hall of Fame on Feb. 25.
What angered members of the audience is the plan to spend $260 million to fix the driving surface while at the same time Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) officials are starting a separate a study to decide whether or not to eliminate much of the viaduct permanently in an effort to make access easier to the riverfront from downtown.
MassDOT project Manager Michael O’Dowd led a presentation which showed that state’s plan would be to repair the roadway in sections and always keeping at least two lanes open on both the north and south sides. Access to Interstate 291 would be kept open at all times but several of the entrances and exits – such as the one at Union Street – would be closed. There would be temporary exits built to maintain access to downtown.
According to the highway history site www.bostonroads.com
, planning for the interstate highway started as early as 1953 and construction on the viaduct began in 1966. The Massachusetts leg of the highway was not completed until 1970.
Through the use of “accelerated bridge techniques” MassDOT official believe the anticipated construction time of five to six years would be cut in half.
According to MassDOT studies, there are 74,000 motorists using the highway each weekday and 54,000 on the weekends.
The parking decks under the highway would be affected during the construction period and would be closed as the stretch of road above them is being replaced.
In anticipation of the I-91 repairs, there will be an unspecified “enhancement” to U.S. Route 5 undertaken this summer.
The timetable for the repairs includes the bridge design of the project would be completed by May, followed by the design of the highway in June. The award of the contract to start construction would be in November.
Before members of the audience spoke, state Sen. Gale Candaras expressed her concerns about the project. Parking for jurors and for court employees as well as downtown events such as the Springfield Symphony will be affected and she has not seen how it will be mitigated.
Candaras said she has written Gov. Deval Patrick to sign agreements to use union labor for the job and she pointed out the viaduct project will coincide with the construction of the MGM Springfield casino, which will probably be approved.
State Sen. James Welch also expressed the importance that access to downtown would be maintained at all times during the construction.
James Vinnick said the proposed repair of I-91 followed by the possible demolition of part of the viaduct would be “a waste of money to do and then do it over again.”
Vinnick said such a plan would “disturb the city twice.”
He then asked O’Dowd how many of the MassDOT staff were involved in the Big Dig are involved in this project.
O’Dowd said, “Many of the design consultants and members of MassDOT [who were part of the Big D project] are involved. It’s very important to note that DOT has made several changes to try to correct the poor reputation by what occurred at the Central Artery.”
O’Dowd added, “This is a different DOT.”
Nicholas Fyntrilakis, the vice president of community responsibility for MassMutual, said he echoed the concerns expressed and added, “I’d like to suggest a pause.”
He said, “We believe this is a game changer, a once in a lifetime opportunity to change a 60-year old problem.”
David Gaby said the approach the state has suggested is “a colossal mistake.”
He emphasized, “We are going to compound the error we made in 1960.”