Sullivan Sq./Rutherford Ave. project in peril

By Pete Stidman

In an 18-month public Boston Transportation Department process that concluded last year, community members chose a “surface option” that would remake Sullivan Square into a grid of streets that help reconnect Somerville, Charlestown, and the “Lost Village” of Charlestown, an area that was physically cut off from Charlestown by the Expressway, for the benefit of pedestrians, cyclists and motorists. The plan eliminates an under-used underpass, creates a 5-acre linear park with a bike path, makes several safety improvements for bikes, pedestrians, and people of all abilities and would cost $71 million.

But since the project was approved, Congressman Michael Capuano and a small group of community members have been expressing concerns about the plan. Because Capuano has the power to block funding for it, the situation is proving a bit of a pickle for the City of Boston, which held eight well-attended community meetings over a year and half and completed a 25 percent design concept that was also supported by the City of Somerville. The funding for this phase of design has already been spent, according to BTD. Therefore any compromises between the surface option and underpass option (for instance, adding more bicycle improvements to the underpass option) would be difficult to make.

It’s also a surprising turn of events for those who know Capuano’s record of supporting great projects for urban commuters over the decades as Mayor of Somerville and during his 13 years of service in Congress. His service and help on a number of projects has been huge over the years and is well appreciated by the Union and other active transportation groups.

But in this case, Capuano has expressed in meetings with advocates that while he supports encouraging cycling for commuting purposes, he is pragmatic about designing for a “balance” of road users. This appears to mean that taking even a small risk of sightly increasing commuting time for cars on Rutherford Avenue in order to encourage cycling with a wide 1.5 mile long, 5-acre linear park similar to the Southwest Corridor is not in the playbook.

Capuano grew up in Somerville and does ride a bike, and he is intimately familiar with Rutherford Ave and Sullivan Square. This issue has personal importance for him as he feels he knows the area well enough to judge which option will have which result, and there is a group of like-minded residents agreeing with his assessments.

But the facts collected by the City of Boston make a very strong case for the greener option on Rutherford Ave. Traffic engineers for the City of Boston have studied the difference between the surface and underpass options of the plan and state that the “level of service” for the proposed Sullivan Square intersection remains the same regardless of whether or not the underpass is rebuilt. In other words, even though more cars would be flowing through the intersection in the at grade version, the intersection is massive enough to handle them efficiently. Main Street would thus be protected from potential cut-through traffic as it would remain the slower option.

A map of Sullivan Square and Rutherford Ave. with possible solutions

On Thursday May 18 (see details below), Capuano is holding a meeting in Charlestown to discuss the city’s community-approved plan and we trust that the esteemed Congressman will listen to both sides of the issue from the voters in his district. It is very important that anyone who uses Sullivan Square on a regular basis (once a week or so) shows up at this meeting to let Capuano know how you feel about the area and what it could one day become.

As traffic has dropped as much as 40 percent on Rutherford Avenue since the Big Dig was completed, do we really spend millions on an underpass? In the 40-50 years or more between now and when the city will look at reconstruction Sullivan Square area again, will the car still be king? With gas prices rising through the roof, would Charlestown residents like to have a safe and green way to get to work?

Be there with the answers.

Wednesday, May 18, 6pm
Knights of Columbus Hall,
75 West School Street,
Charlestown, MA


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