The Callahan Tunnel will close for construction for three months at the beginning of next year, capping a convergence of projects scheduled for early 2014 that some fear will create a perfect storm of gridlock.
The 52-year-old tunnel, a key artery connecting central Boston to Logan International Airport, will close from the end of December until the end of March. The tunnel, which officials said has come close to becoming too dangerous for traffic, will receive a complete overhaul.
“Every aspect of the tunnel is in fair to poor condition,” Frank DePaola, highway administrator for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said in a statement. “The time has come to put the Callahan in shape to last another 50 years.”
But shuttering the Callahan Tunnel could hardly come at a worse time: It will overlap the Longfellow Bridge construction project, set to start next month, which will halt northbound traffic, as well as the closing of the Government Center MBTA station, scheduled for the fall, which will hamper commuters who want to take the Blue Line to the airport.
“This isn’t just one project; it’s many projects that are going to overlap with each other,” said Stephanie Pollack, associate director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. “It’s going to be a test of MassDOT’s ability to coordinate across its agencies and projects, as well as really communicate with the public.”
The nearly 30,000 cars that travel through the Callahan Tunnel every weekday will be detoured to the Ted Williams Tunnel or Route 1 for airport access.
The $34.9 million project, financed by tolls, will require that the tunnel be stripped to its bare bones. Workers will lay down new cement slab decks and asphalt and replace gutters and curb lines.
In recent months, concerns have grown about the tunnel’s safety. Last year, a single wall panel fell at evening rush hour. No one was injured, but officials removed some, then all, of the tunnel’s 2,800 panels.
At a press conference Thursday, DePaola said there has been a sharp uptick in problems such as broken asphalt, leaving gaping holes exposing the concrete below. A manhole cover recently fell completely through its slot, requiring a lane closure while the cover was replaced.
Without an overhaul, said DePaola, he would have had to close the tunnel for safety reasons in one or two years.
“We knew we needed to do something as a permanent repair,” DePaola said.
The Sumner Tunnel, which runs parallel to the Callahan, will need a similar overhaul in the next several years that could also require it to be closed, DePaola said.
MassDOT has plans to combat the added congestion from multiple construction projects. The carpool lane off Interstate 93 to the Ted Williams Tunnel will be opened to all traffic, he said, and commuters will be allowed to use the South Boston bypass road to the airport, which is now open only to commercial vehicles. Tolls will be waived at the Massachusetts Turnpike turnaround at Allston/Brighton, allowing motorists in the Back Bay to use Interstate 90 eastbound without paying and to avoid Storrow Drive traffic caused by the Longfellow Bridge project.
“We will have a significant traffic diversion plan,” DePaola said.
After the tunnel reopens at the end of March, there will be a series of overnight closures for another four months while workers replace wall panels.
DePaola said the Callahan construction was timed so it would not overlap with lane closures on the Tobin Bridge, caused by a repainting project this summer and next.
Still, the announcement elicited responses on Twitter that ranged from “Ugh,” “Oh no,” and “Oy vey!” to “Yep, not going to Boston for a while.”
Pollack said the convergence of transportation headaches early next year is a product of years of deferring much-needed renovations. But, she maintained, the project is an opportunity for MassDOT to push public transportation. Commuters horrified by the thought of intense gridlock may find public transit attractive.
“It’s an opportunity to take drivers who wouldn’t usually try the commuter rail from the North Shore, who say, ‘Oh, my God, this is going to be a mess; maybe I’ll just take the T,’ ” Pollack said.
In April, officials opted for the quicker, yank-off-the-Band-aid approach for the Callahan, DePaola said, rather than a less aggressive project that would have kept one lane of traffic open, but instead taken 18 months.
Not everyone agrees that it is the best tack.
Richard A. Dimino — president of A Better City, a public policy organization — said he was unsure whether the three-month option was optimal, adding that MassDOT will need to conduct a more vigorous analysis of how best to avoid traffic snarls.
Opening the Sumner Tunnel to two-way traffic should be an option, Dimino said, though DePaola maintained that it would not be possible. Dimino suggested postponing closing of the Government Center T station until the tunnel is back open. “We need to be sure that we’re providing a set of really viable and attractive alternatives,” he said.
Pollack said she agreed with the state’s growing preference for conducting construction projects in the fastest way possible. But, she said, the state must deliver on its timeline.
“When you commit to this fast-but-painful philosophy, at a minimum you’ve got to achieve that fast part,” Pollack said. “Otherwise, it just going to be painful.”
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