If the past is prologue, residents in Chelsea and East Boston are preparing themselves for another traffic nightmare in 2023.
At back to back informational meetings last week, MassDOT announced it will close the Sumner Tunnel in Eastie for a full four months during the summer of 2023 to complete its ‘Sumner Tunnel Centennial’ project. Most nouthbound traffic out of Logan Airport will be detoured to the Tobin Bridge.
At last week’s meetings on Tuesday and Thursday, MassDOT’s Steve McLaughlin said the project, which will kick off in 2021/2022 with prep and advance work, will have significant impacts on the two neighborhoods.
While the project calls for weekend closures during the first phase of the project that will last through spring 2023, it’s MassDOT’s plan to fully close the tunnel for four months beginning in summer 2023 that has residents on edge.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic residents dealt with daily gridlock in the neighborhood caused by what many residents felt was an ill-conceived reconfiguration of the Sumner Tunnel toll plaza.
Almost every day residents spent close to an hour trying to commute out of Chelsea and Eastie into downtown with nearly every main thoroughfare jam packed with motorists from the North Shore trying to avoid Route 1A traffic.
Months after the reconfiguration MassDOT officials admitted they used outdated traffic projections that predicted traffic going into the tunnel would grow by only a half percent each year. Going on those projections traffic into the Sumner should have only grown by 2.5 percent from 2013 to 2018. However, MassDOT said that traffic exploded and there was a whopping 47 percent increase in tunnel traffic since 2013. That was nearly 45 percent more than MassDOT predicted over the same time period.
With the massive failure to foresee the traffic the plaza reconfiguration would cause, many residents have little confidence in MassDOT’s plans for a full closure of the tunnel from May through September 2023.
At the Thursday night meeting McLaughlin conceded that traffic was way down due to the pandemic but during 2019 there were 39,000 vehicles using the Sumner each day or nearly 200,000 trips during the work week.
McLaughlin said that as more people return to work, school and traveling the numbers will tick up once again and the four-month closure will pose significant impacts.
MassDOT plans to reroute Eastie, North Shore and Logan Airport traffic through the Ted Williams Tunnel during the closure. Route 93 northbound traffic out of Logan will be rerouted to the Tobin in Chelsea.
At last week’s meeting one resident asked how MassDOT would ensure traffic is kept off neighborhood streets.
McLaughlin said MassDOT would only put detour signage on major routes but admitted that motorists using mapping apps like WAZE may prove to be a problem.
“We will be signing the main major routes, we’re not signing anything on any other routes,” said McLaughlin. “We will have real time monitoring so we’ll know what the volumes are so that we can adjust the timing as much as we’re able to do so that people don’t go on to local streets. We’re informing all of the mapping companies that these are the detours. However, we can not dictate to them where they send people unfortunately.”
Mapping apps like WAZE, were cited by MassDOT as an unforeseen problem when the plaza was reconfigured. These apps help motorists avoid traffic and provide shortcuts to a commuters final destination. In the case of the traffic caused by the toll plaza project, these apps redirected many North Shore commuters off Route 1A and onto neighborhood streets adding to the unbearable traffic each morning.
Now with MassDOT planning to close the tunnel for four months at a time when traffic should return to normal levels post-pandemic, residents are nervous that North Shore commuters will be getting off the highway well before the Ted Williams Tunnel and cut through Revere and the Eastie. Residents fear Bennington and Saratoga Streets will be used more heavily as a way to avoid highway traffic into the Ted Williams throughout the closure.
“The City of Chelsea has been disparately impacted by COVID-19, due to chronic air pollution, environmental injustice, and historic inequities that continue to affect our community,” said Alex Train, AICP, Director of Housing & Community Development. “During the Sumner Tunnel closure, the City will inevitably experience an increase in traffic, which could lead to congestion, air pollution, and significant community impacts, as traffic is diverted over surface roads. We’re committed to working diligently on behalf of the community to minimize the local effects of this project, in coordination with City Council and our community based partners.”
Chelsea Council President Roy Avellaneda said Chelsea public officials have been in regular monthly meetings with MassDOT concerning the traffic impacts presently happening in Chelsea.
“I fully expect the same coordination to happen with the planned Sumner Tunnel work,” said Avellaneda. “It’s difficult to predict how North Shore Commuters will change their driving patterns with the four month closing. But I would expect some of those drivers to avoid 1A and instead take the Tobin Bridge or Rt. 99 via Rt. 16 as an alternative. If that’s the case, then Chelsea should expect a greater amount of traffic along the Everett Avenue corridor and if so, have MassDOT explain its plans to mitigate that added traffic congestion.”
Avellaneda said MassDOT should provide the City of Chelsea with funding for Chelsea Police Traffic details as mitigation.
“Another would be to see if the MBTA plans on adding more buses for the 111,116 and 117 for those commuters expecting to avoid the traffic congestion and take public transportation,” he said. “My other concern here is that if the Ted Williams Tunnel has a greater commute time, then how many Chelsea Silver Line riders will seek alternative public transportation options and if the MBTA is planning on those adjustments.”
The proposed project consists of resurfacing the tunnel roadway including pavement and lane markings; rehabilitating the overhead arch and ceiling, including deteriorating suspended ceiling supports; restoring the historic portal facades and addressing the functional system deficiencies of the Sumner Tunnel. Once the project has been completed, the Sumner Tunnel will meet modern fire and life safety codes with fireproofing, fire standpipe, fire alarm and CCTV upgrades. The tunnel will feature new LED lighting and security systems; new utility conduits and cables under the roadway deck which will improve cell phone, GPS, and radio service inside the tunnel.
McLaughlin said the advantages of weekend and the subsequent full closure would minimizes safety risks to tunnel workers and motorists; accelerates project completion; minimizes duration of disruption to local communities, businesses and road users; provides consistent detours and diversions for the traveling public; minimizes temperature and weather delays; and allows for high quality of work.
“We have a tunnel that is about 100 years old and we’re not replacing the tunnel, we’re rehabilitating the tunnel so that we can get another many decades out of it,” said McLaughlin. “And to do this it requires some shutdowns. There will be pain but that’s the nature of living in an urban environment like this. These are the types of things that we have to go through. But we think our solution is sensible and smart and safe in the long term.”
The next meeting will be a virtual design public hearing on Wednesday, May 19 at 6 p.m. For more info and updates visit https://www.mass.gov/sumner-tunnel-restoration-project.