Surface or Underpass? Charlestown Residents Crowd Final Meeting To Discuss Rutherford Avenue Changes
The Boston Transportation Department plans to make a decision on what to do with the Austin Street intersection within the next three months.
Charlestown residents who turned out for one final community meeting on the Rutherford Avenue corridor project Thursday night argued passionately for their sides—revisiting old concerns and raising new questions, too.
But whether they were for keeping the underpass at Rutherford and Austin Street or supported bringing the roadway to the surface, nearly everyone seemed ready to move forward, urging city officials to make a decision soon.
Hosted by the Boston Transportation Department, the public meeting was held at the Knights of Columbus hall on Medford Avenue and drew a standing room-only crowd, with many surface option supporters wearing green stickers that stated their views.
BTD Commissioner Tom Tinlin moderated the meeting, which was attended by Charlestown’s City Councilor Sal LaMattina, Danielle Fitzgerald from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services and representatives of the Charlestown Neighborhood Council.
LaMattina, speaking at the start of the meeting, called the area a “nightmare that needs to be addressed” and said it was currently unsafe for pedestrians walking to and from the T station.
“We’ve been talking about Rutherford Avenue since 1999,” LaMattina said. “[…] Tonight, I hope we can work together as the strong neighborhood we are to come up with a plan.”
At several times, Tinlin reminded residents that of the $13 million set aside to design the Rutherford Avenue project, $1.5 million has already been “repurposed” by the commonwealth for other uses and that it was important to move forward before that pot continues to deteriorate.
He also made it clear that the construction portion of the project—costing an estimated $80 million to $100 million—was currently not funded.
The Dec. 6 meeting focused on the one area of the project that has not been decided yet—the future of the underpass at Austin Street.
Michael Hall, senior project manager with Tetra Tech—the company hired by the city to design the project—outlined the two options.
Tetra Tech has been involved with the project since 2008, and Thursday's meeting was their eighth public meeting on the subject, Hall noted.
If the underpass remains, the intersection at Austin and Rutherford would look similar to the way it is today, but the Rutherford Avenue ramps would be moved in, away from the neighborhoods, with a 22-foot open space buffer added. Rutherford Avenue at the underpass would be reduced from six lanes down to four—two in each direction, instead of three.
This option would reduce pedestrian crossings from three to two and the crossing distance from 210 feet overall to 140 feet overall, improving the ease and safety of passage.
With the surface option, the underpass would be filled in and Rutherford Avenue would be brought level with Austin Street at the intersection. The Rutherford ramps would be brought in even further, creating a 50-foot buffer zone and multi-use path on the east side of the roadway.
Pedestrian crossings would be reduced from three to two, with the total distance reduced from 210 feet down to 90 feet.
The surface option also features two left turn lanes for those turning from the Gilmore Bridge and Cambridge north onto Rutherford Avenue.
The underpass option would continue to separate thru traffic heading north or south on Rutherford, while the surface option would slow that traffic down, bringing it to the Austin Street intersection.
Also with both options, city officials have proposed three new traffic lights to help traffic exiting Baldwin Street, Essex Street and Bunker Hill Community College.
Numbers don't tell the story
For Charlestown residents who supported keeping an underpass at Austin Street, the issue appeared to come down to numbers—specifically, the peak traffic volume numbers reported by Tetra Tech, which many felt were not accurate.
Hall said his company reviewed traffic in the area on a typical weekday between 7 and 9 a.m. and between 4 and 6 p.m. That study showed an increase in morning traffic by about 5 percent from 1,875 vehicles per hour in 2008 to 1,960 vehicles per hour in 2011. Afternoon traffic actually dropped slightly, from 2,195 vehicles per hour in 2008 to 2,150 vehicles per hour in 2011, Hall said.
The plans for lane reductions and turn-lane configuration take those numbers into account, and the company has planned for a 5 percent increase in traffic in the area by 2030, Hall said.
But some residents living along Rutherford Avenue said those numbers, and the per-hour per-lane recordings Tetra Tech noted, were just not what they were seeing out of their own windows.
Bill Galvin, a Monument Square resident, said residents should question the numbers and that “the city has been trying to sell this surface option from day 1.” He worried that eliminating the underpass would cause traffic to back up even further onto Main Street.
Tinlin said he felt the process had been fully transparent.
“The city’s not here to sell anything,” he said. “Ask yourself: What would be the benefit to your city government of creating a situation that just crippled Charlestown? There’s no benefit to that.”
A Washington Street resident whose living room faces Rutherford Avenue questioned whether officials considered recent developments in the Navy Yard or the new Spaulding Rehabilitation Center.
“All that traffic coming up Chelsea Street and wanting to go north and having nowhere to go except on the surface, all up on that ramp,” she said. “My feeling being there every day […] is you’re going to have a parade of cars backed up all the way down to the Washington Street bridge and beyond if you take away the underpass.”
Another Monument Avenue resident argued that stalling vehicles at the Austin Street intersection and at the proposed new traffic lights would cause more noise and air pollution into the neighborhoods, something the city is attempting to reduce.
But Tinlin said that that new traffic signal technology would allow the city to achieve that goal even while bringing traffic up into the intersection.
Surface option proponents speak
A Rutherford Avenue resident who coaches track and cross country supported the surface option, saying slower traffic and better crosswalks could allow his student runners to cross the street and run freely through the neighborhood.
“Right now it takes forever, and it’s dangerous,” he said.
A Tremont Street resident argued that by shortening pedestrian crossings and making it safer and easier to cross the city would encourage more public transit use, reducing the total number of vehicles on the road. She also felt that having some traffic on Main Street could encourage downtown commerce, saying it “isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
Another resident argued that Charlestown needed to move into the 21st century and create “an urban space and not a highway.” He reviewed the history of Rutherford Avenue, which was developed in the 1960s as an alternative highway route because Route 93 was not developed yet.
“We are clinging to a piece of history,” he said. “Hubway can’t produce enough bicycles to provide for the city’s need because the demand is so great, and we’re trying to say let’s save lanes of traffic for cars when what we should be talking about is changing the orientation from cars, bicycles, pedestrians to pedestrians, bicycles, cars, and give cars the shorter shrift in all cases, because they need to be restricted. They are our nemesis. They don’t need to be provided for.”
Others on Thursday just felt the process should move forward.
Tom Cunha, a Bunker Hill Street resident and chairman of the Charlestown Neighborhood Council, said he felt the city needed to be proactive rather than reacting to transportation decisions made by neighboring communities.
“My concern is we’ve been at this process for at least 15 good, solid years,” he said. “The community has come out in numbers like this a couple times and less at other times.”
Mark Rosenshein, a Mystic Street resident and CNC member, said he felt the time had long since come for the city to make a decision.
“You’ve put us in a position where it’s either/or and you’ve left us there for years,” he said. “I’m not sure there are many people in this room who have changed their minds.”
Tinlin said the city had been ready to go on the project more than two years ago, following a CNC vote supporting the surface option, but when the community raised concerns, they agreed to revisit the plans.
“Austin Street became a real issue because people couldn’t fathom how it could work,” Tinlin said. “Folks wanted to know more.”
Pearl Street resident Monica Lamboy suggested the two sides unite behind the surface option and demand that the city make sure it works for Charlestown.
“If the city says they can do this then they should be held accountable for doing this,” she said. “Why don’t we unify around an option that can give us the best and hold the people accountable who are going to do this to deliver what they say they’re going to deliver?"
At the end of the discussion, around 8:30 p.m., Tinlin asked residents to raise their hands in support of their preferred option, although he clarified it was not an actual vote. Though some had already left, the remaining residents leaned in favor of the surface option.
After the meeting, Tinlin said he anticipated the city making a decision on the project before winter's end.
“I would say within the next three months,” he said. “I think we’ve exhausted the process.”