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The Boston Globe

Business

  

Shirley Leung

Can Boston’s most controversial road fix Seaport traffic?

It was just after 4 p.m. one recent Tuesday, and while others sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic, I was flying along the bypass road as if on a magic carpet ride, cutting across town from the South Boston Waterfront to South Bay in less than three minutes.

I could get used to that, very used to that, which is exactly why the 1.1 mile stretch of asphalt known as the South Boston Bypass Road could soon become the most controversial street in Massachusetts. Actually, it already is.

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The thoroughfare opened in 1993 as a restricted road for truck traffic during the construction of the Big Dig, and when the tunnels finally opened, the Bypass Road remained restricted to commercial use.

So it’s basically like a country road in the middle of the city, carrying just 100 vehicles per hour during its busiest times when it can comfortably handle 18 times that number. But as the Seaport seizes up with congestion virtually every weekday afternoon, state officials plan to explore opening the road to general traffic.

It’s not as easy as taking down some signs, though. To allow commuters and other drivers to use the bypass, the state will need to seek approval from the Federal Highway Administration because federal funds were used to build the road. State officials must show that lifting the restriction won’t add to air pollution, and if it does, they’ll need to come up with a plan to offset the harm to the environment. Think more bus service and carpooling.

And that’s just the complicated part. Here’s why it’s so controversial.

The Seaport may be the place in Boston where the new and old economies most vividly collide. And that collision may well take place on the Bypass Road.

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Long before the upscale restaurants, well-heeled conventioneers, and so many tech workers in shorts and on scooters descended on the South Boston Waterfront, there were railyards and warehouses and processing plants that moved more than 100,000 pounds of fish a day. It was a workingman’s haven, and much of that still lives in the Port of Boston, on the Fish Pier, and in the Boston Marine Industrial Park.

The restricted road is an important nod to these businesses.

“We like it the way it is,” said Dennis Kelley, treasurer of Commercial Lobster Co., a seafood wholesaler that has been on Northern Avenue since 1978. He fears that allowing cars on the Bypass Road would clog it. “Time is money when you’re shipping stuff around.”

The company, which also runs the Yankee Lobster restaurant and fish market at the same location, sends three trucks out three to four times a day down the Bypass Road, ferrying fish and lobster to restaurants and grocery stores throughout the region.

Some environmentalists and residents also aren’t happy, viewing the road as a shortsighted way to deal with the gridlock brought on by an influx of new companies and thousands of employees. Opening up the road, they said, will just encourage more people to drive and more congestion.

The blunt-speaking Massachusetts Highway administrator, Frank DePaola, whose agency is studying the road change, dismisses that notion. “If you have traffic, and you want to relieve it, you have to find road capacity,” he said.

One of the biggest beneficiaries in all of this would be State Street Corp. Richard Galvin, the president of CV Properties, the developer of Channel Center and the State Street headquarters next to it, has hired Jeff Mullan, a partner at Foley Hoag who happens to be the state’s former transportation secretary, to study traffic issues in the area, including general use of the Bypass Road.

State Street’s new headquarters on A Street will bring in several thousand employees starting early next year. Galvin’s project features a big garage and a new street with direct access to the bypass.

Roger Berkowitz, chief executive of Legal Sea Foods, straddles both the new and old worlds of the waterfront, with a fish processing plant and a flashy flagship, Legal Harborside. He proposes a compromise, recommending the road be open to everyone only during rush hour.

“That’s when it’s most needed, and when it’s not, it’s better for the trucks to use,” said Berkowitz.

The state should run with Roger’s idea, or more appropriately, drive it. We need to figure out how to keep progress moving, not just set up roadblocks.

Shirley Leung can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.

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