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City hopes new plan for Rutherford Avenue will bridge community divide

By Erin Greene
On May 3, 2012

To tunnel or stay above ground?   The options for the Rutherford Avenue redesign have divided Charlestown for two years now, spawned the creation of a web site supporting the so-called "surface option" and even engaged Rep. Michael Capuano.

Now, the city is about to unveil a new plan for the much-discussed roadway that in certain ways seems to split the difference.

In an upcoming meeting with the Charlestown Neighborhood Council, the Boston Transportation Department will show plans for a hybrid option for the roadway which would incorporate elements of the two proposed plans.

"We're basically taking half a step backward in the hopes that that'll let us march ahead," said Vineet Gupta, director of policy and planning for the BTD.

The community has to come to consensus before the project can move forward, Gupta said, and the sooner it moves forward the greater the chances funding will remain available.

"In many ways we're far past the deadline," said Gupta.

Funding for the project, the total cost of which has been estimated between $71 and $83 million, comes in four components. Before funding for stage two, which includes technical research into traffic counts and street lighting, can be used, the community has to agree on stage one: planning.

The community is generally divided into two groups: those who support a roadway with no underpasses, and those in support of an option that includes two underpasses, one at Austin Street and another in Sullivan Square. What the city will propose would keep the underpass at Austin Street but eliminate the one in Sullivan Square. The Sullivan Square rotary would also be eliminated - a unanimously supported change that would untangle congestion at the intersection and create a street-grid system instead.

A local group calling themselves the surface option supporters has their own website and has put together a presentation they've shown to 14 local organizations. The presentation outlines the positive impact they believe an underpass-free road would have on the community: the creation of parks on Austin Street, in City Square and on the neighborhood side of the avenue; improved pedestrian access to two orange line T stations; a nicer gateway to the neighborhood; and a path along the roadway for pedestrians and cyclists.

"We think there's a great opportunity to make that roadway work for the community," said Gerald Robbins, a member of the Rutherford Corridor Improvement Coalition, a group that includes the surface option supporters.

Rutherford Avenue is a mile and a half long but looks like a highway and invites speeds well over the posted limit. Paul Clausen, the chair of the neighborhood council's ad hoc transportation committee, said studies have shown cars on the roadway travel at speeds ranging from 17 to 134 mph. The surface option supporters would like to see a posted speed limit of 30 mph.

Opponents to keeping the avenue above ground fear more traffic would be pushed onto neighborhood streets as drivers try to bypass traffic lights that would be installed on the avenue. Gupta says that while both options would work from a traffic perspective, having underpasses would be marginally advantageous.

The focus now, after two years of planning from 2008 to 2010 and two years of gridlock since then, he says, is getting the community to come together and give direction to the city. Once that happens, the BTD will begin to host its own meetings again to work on moving forward with the project.

"It's an opportunity for a transformative change," he said.

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