By John Lynds
MassDOT is once again planning on reconfiguring the Sumner Tunnel Toll plaza after months of daily gridlock and complaints from residents and elected officials. At last Wednesday’s meeting at East Boston High School one thing became abundantly clear, trying to shoehorn the agency’s All Electronic Tolling (AET) program that has worked in places like the Massachusetts Turnpike into a dense urban area is proving to be trying to say the least.
Unlike the Allston/Brighton tolls or the toll plaza in Weston, places where removing toll booths increased the speed of traffic and decreased gridlock, the removal of the Sumner Tunnel tolls has had the complete opposite affect. Eastie’s toll plaza is unique in that it is situated smack dab in the middle of a residential and commercial neighborhood. Unlike the Mass Pike tolls, the toll plaza here includes pedestrian traffic, neighborhood traffic as well as North Shore traffic coming down Route 1A. It is bordered by homes, businesses and neighborhood side streets. So MassDOT’s goal of increasing traffic flow and volume for Route1A commuters has had hugely negative affect on the neighborhood as side streets have become completely gridlocked during the morning commute.
However, MassDOT officials think they may have the answer to solving the problems with the original design of the toll plaza. At last week’s meeting MassDOT officials said they are going to extended the neighborhood’s access to the tunnel from Visconti Way closer to Porter Street. MassDOT plans to eliminate the local exit onto Harve Street from Route 1A South.
There will be a designated local access lane into the tunnel during most hours of the day. This will involve a system of swing gates that will shut down one lane coming from Route 1A and allow Eastie motorists to breeze into the tunnel from the far right lane.
After presenting what MassDOT officials are calling a ‘final’ design, residents and elected officials like Rep. Adrian Madaro cautioned MassDOT not to label the new configuration as ‘final’ and the agency should take a ‘wait and see’ approach to the new design and adjust accordingly.
Others at the meeting who came to hear solutions to the daily morning gridlock went home disappointed.
“I came here for your solutions and it dons’t seem like you are presenting solutions,” said Eagle Hill resident Tina St. Gelais Kelly. “I’m a little offended because we are not a stupid neighborhood. We are impacted by a lot of things (in this neighborhood) and on top of it we now have this traffic problem that wasn’t there before (the tolls came down). If you are telling me this is better how is it better? You haven’t really changed anything to the design. Where are the solutions? I think you need to go back to drawing board and redo it.”
Others felt MassDOT didn’t do enough to address the gridlock outside of the toll plaza. One problem area has seemed to be where Porter Street and London Street meet and enter the tunnel. The four-way intersection has traffic coming from London Street as well as Porter Street traffic coming from Central Square. This, coupled with motorists coming off Route 1A south and heading into Central Square, has led to numerous backups into Central Square, Bennington Street and Meridian Street.
Some pointed out that all it takes is two drivers trying to jockey for position into the one lane leading into the tunnel to cause traffic to start backing up and a ripple effect to occur on side streets.
“You’ve removed the jockeying for position that use to occur inside the toll plaza when the toll booths were there and just pushed it back onto neighborhood streets,” said one residents.
Others complained that before moving forward with yet another design, MassDOT should study the traffic outside of the toll plaza and go as far as Suffolk Downs.
“Once the back ups on Route 1A start the North Shore drivers says ‘I’m not sitting in this’ takes the Curtis Street exit and then clogs our streets in the morning,” said another resident. “Maybe you should think of closing that exit in the morning to keep the traffic on the highway and off our streets.”
Local community activists like Chris Marchi also pointed to the blight of the area caused not only by the initial tunnel construction in the 1930s but past and current condition of the MassDOT properties around the tunnel and the new traffic created.
“I challenge you to take walk over the pedestrian bridge and see the diaper or trash thats been up there for weeks, look at the weeds, look at all the garbage and that’s what we have grown up with in this neighborhood and its galling that MassDOT thinks so little of us,” said Marchi. “You won’t take care of this property and now the project you are proposing does not take into account the needs of this neighborhood. This is a super dense urban neighborhood. People walk in this neighborhood. This area around the tunnel is a connector to schools, to the YMCA, to the Bremen Street Park. Did you do pedestrian counts to really see how active this toll plaza is? This is Central Square, this is Eagle Hill, this is Jeffries Point this use to be a very walkable, livable community and we want that back now. We deserve better than a project like this.”