HIGHWAYS TO BOULEVARDS BLOG: McGrath Highway, Boston
This post is a part of CNU’s Highways to Boulevards Blog series, which features interview summaries and insights from some of the best minds at the frontline of our Highways to Boulevards Initiative.
The following post comes courtesy of Steven Nutter, transportation advocate with Livable Streets Alliance of the Greater Boston area. In the post, Steven catalogues the history of the McGrath Highway, from construction to the grassroots effort to tear it down. Read our previous blog on the Terminal Island Freeway in Long Beach, Part 1 and Part 2.
After a significant advocacy effort, the overpass portion of McGrath highway will come down, instead of spending $110 million rebuilding the elevated structure. “It just repels you,” said Hayes Morrison, Somerville’s director of transportation and infrastructure, shuddering at the thought of walking beneath the eroding span, which carries the McGrath Highway (Route 28) over surface streets. But we still struggle to ensure what is built in its place is at a human scale.
Boston is an older American city. The basic infrastructure of the whole Boston metropolitan region is of the age that it was designed for three modes of travel: pedestrians, horses, and trains. The first highways for cars were often built on historic road networks -- “upgraded” by adding lanes and overpasses -- and often cut through what was once a series of dense residential centers. Looking at them they feel like highway prototypes, a kind of experiment in road design.
One of these is McGrath Highway. In the 1950’s, large neighborhood sections along the route in Somerville were demolished to make way for a new elevated portion of highway called the McCarthy Overpass that divided the city in two, choking off a third of the city from access to employment, commercial development, recreation, and schools. To the north and south of the elevated portion, the road was enlarged to up to eight lanes and called McGrath Highway. Neighborhood streets were blocked from accessing the new road. Hundreds of acres of land were cut off from the rest of the city and surrounding towns.
Looking at an aerial photo of the neighborhoods around McGrath you can easily see the effects of urban highways. Like weeds growing after clear cutting, the buildings that have sprouted up around the road are large footprint one story low quality structures, creating inherently unwalkable regions scaled for cars and trucks, not people. This contrasts the dense family-focused neighborhoods just blocks beyond the highway.
But by the 1970's, Interstate 93 was constructed just ¾ of a mile to the east effectively rendering McGrath obsolete as a regional corridor. Over the past decade after the completion of the Big Dig (a highway dismantling project itself), traffic volumes on McGrath have been dropping precipitously— and will continue to decline when the Green Line Extension opens in the corridor. Though built as a highway, it now acts as a city street carrying approximately the same amount of traffic as a four-lane, tree-lined, sidewalk and bike lane complete Massachusetts Avenue through the Back Bay neighborhood in Boston.
In the wake of the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Massachusetts had identified the overpass portions of McGrath be fully rehabilitated (it had deteriorated such that an emergency interim repairs were conducted.) We as a community were at a decision point. Do we continue to pour money into infrastructure that has declining users, is an impediment to strong neighborhoods, divides communities and stifles employment and commercial activity? Or instead commit to taking down the elevated highway and return the corridor to a network of walkable city streets and bring back the neighborhoods?
Over the past several years, advocates for neighborhoods have banded together. A unified coalition was built, with a set of five common values: (1) Reunite neighborhoods, (2) Humanize the space, (3) Ensure safety for all users, (4) Green the corridor, and (5) Open economic development opportunities. Vigorous community activism that engaged a diverse cross section of stakeholders successfully put the removal of the overpass on the agenda. One advocate took up the subject of the struggle to remove McGrath in his masters thesis.
A year ago, MassDOT announced plans to remove the overpasses and replace them with a surface roadway. Somerville Mayor Curtatone, who grew up barely 50 yards from the elevated stretch of highway, stated, “They are neighborhoods of the past that we want to bring back ...There is no bigger barrier in East Somerville and perhaps this entire city, than McGrath Highway.”
Photo courtesy of MassDOT, Grounding McGrath Presentation.
In order to determine exactly what would replace the highway, MassDOT launched the Grounding McGrath study. Last month, the results of the study were announced by Frank DePaola, highway administrator with the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. “Our decision to go with the boulevard option reflects the strong desire to integrate more, and healthier, modes of transportation into our highway network,” he said. “It will be much like a six-lane boulevard going through that same corridor, opening up access for that whole area," he continued.
While it is an important step to move the conversation from an overpass to a surface road, residents face the next hurdle: rethinking McGrath not as a highway but as an actual city street. In essence, what MassDOT has proposed is a surface version of the same six-lane highway that divides our city, a way to get from point A to point B, a pass-through for automobile commuters. Though the term “boulevard” is being used to describe the new design, we are concerned that it will not create the human, livable scaled street that that will really serve the community.
This is a common problem that we see in other highway removal projects in the area, such as Rutherford Avenue and Casey Overpass. These projects, too, begin with new surface designs with a highway mentality that advocates believe are overly conservative because transportation officials and politicians alike try to minimize any risk of traffic when the project is complete.
In the case of the McGrath, because it will take approximately a decade until the highway will come down, we have time to continue to work with stakeholders to downsize the design while maintaining the comfort level that it will still function adequately for cars. With continued pressure from advocates, we still re-imagine McGrath as a series of connected city streets it once was.
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