Officials hope to slow traffic, reduce crashes around high-traffic intersection
Utilizing federal and state funding, the city and state are moving forward together with plans to improve safety on Routes 28 and 38, including raised crosswalks, separated bike lanes, and additional traffic signals.
Made more urgent by recent pedestrian fatalities, the project focuses on McGrath Highway from Broadway to Mystic Avenue, and Mystic from Kensington Avenue to Temple Street—an area designated by the state as a “top 200 crash location.”
Officials from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation hosted a virtual informational meeting last Thursday, June 2, to provide an update on the proposed street and intersection redesigns, as well as improvements recently made.
MassDOT Project Manager David Shedd explained that his team had previously presented the project at a virtual public meeting in December 2020. Since then, some segments of the project were removed from the federally funded Transportation Improvement Program proposal. Those segments, deemed more urgent, were fast-tracked, using state funding to address safety issues. Removing them from the TIP project got them done faster, Shedd said.
“This project started out with a robust planning study. During this stage of the project, there were several meetings with local stakeholders, including several of the local bicycle advocacy groups, City officials, and MBTA. The result of this planning stage was a report with recommendations for improvements to be included in the TIP project,” said Shedd.
“After the tragic crash and pedestrian fatalities, there was an immediate need to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists in the project area in an accelerated process,” he said.
Getting federal funding through TIP requires multiple design submissions and a comprehensive review process. Using state funds allowed a more streamlined review, and faster construction, to address the immediate safety issues, Shedd said.
One of the changes already made was at the intersection of McGrath at Blakeley Avenue, a side street that runs from Foss Park to Stop & Shop. A crosswalk was installed with a new signal, a pedestrian-activated crosswalk light, ADA-compliant ramps, and pavement markers, and a new sidewalk was installed near the crosswalk. That intersection will undergo further improvements during the TIP project.
The southbound and northbound intersections of Mystic Avenue at Kensington Avenue are in the process of getting new raised crosswalks, paved sidewalks, a new median island, and pedestrian ramps, all meant to slow vehicular traffic and improve walkers’ safety. Currently an underpass, the Kensington pedestrian path crosses Mystic Avenue and leads to the Stop & Shop and Public Storage buildings.
New pedestrian ramps are also being installed with flashing lights and curb bump-outs for foot-travelers to have an easier time crossing Fellsway and other intersections in that area.
“We are hopeful that the improvements [that were fast-tracked and funded by the state] will be completed this construction season,” Shedd said.
The federal TIP project will be targeted towards “filling in the gaps,” with pedestrian and bicycle improvements, as well as some new green space, he said.
Tim McIntosh, project manager for VHB, MassDOT’s design consultant, then presented the latest iteration of the TIP proposal.
“The project started with an extensive traffic planning study involving MassDOT, the City of Somerville, and various stakeholder groups. That process was valuable, and helped to inform the various components of the design,” McIntosh said.
The scope of work for the TIP project has changed, partly due to the state-funded safety improvements that were removed from the TIP project and fast-tracked, “but primarily due to various comments received on the original preliminary design,” he said.
The changes included enhanced bicycle facilities including sidewalk-level separated bike lanes and shared-use paths for cyclists and pedestrians, he said.
“These enhanced features are primarily enabled by the elimination of one southbound travel lane on Route 28,” McIntosh said.
Eliminating one travel lane allows for dedicated paths for bicycles and pedestrians, shorter roadway crossing distances, and reduction in vehicle speeds, resulting in reduction of crashes.
“Considering the various tragic crashes that have occurred in this area, improvements that result in crash reduction and improved safety for all users are important and primary goals of the project,” said McIntosh.
Pedestrian and bicycle shared-use paths are proposed in and around the intersection of Mystic Avenue and McGrath Highway, including both the northbound and southbound sides of McGrath.
Southbound, the separated bike lane ends at Broadway. A separate project to resurface McGrath Highway south of Broadway is currently being planned.
On Mystic Avenue southbound near Grant Street, there is currently a bus-only lane in the mornings. MassDOT is proposing to convert the bus lane to a permanent, full-time bus-bike lane.
Shedd pointed out that the proposal is still in its design phase. After it is reviewed by MassDOT and the City, a public hearing will be held, probably sometime early this fall, he said.
The design process is expected to be completed in summer or fall of 2023, allowing construction to start in the spring of 2024.
After the presentation by project staff, during the public comment period, Sen. Pat Jehlen expressed her gratitude for the safety improvements currently being made and the further plans being considered.
“There are several good things” about the process, she said. “I think people will be excited to see how much progress can be made in pedestrian safety, and safety for people in cars, by reducing speed and reducing the number of lanes in several places.”
Photo: Traffic on McGrath Highway.
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Linda Pinkow is a reporter for the Somerville Wire. She is also a development consultant for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.