It’s a terrible thought to consider: Could Massachusetts, too, be a victim of a politically motivated traffic jam?
In the aftermath of the controversy surrounding Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and disclosure that someone in his office closed several lanes of a major bridge in an act of political retribution, local commuters may be looking at routine traffic delays with new skepticism.
Is it possible? Yes. Governor Deval Patrick and Highway Administrator Frank DePaola both have the power to order lanes or roadways closed, a power they have used on rare occasions in the past, such as when Patrick ordered a travel ban during last February’s blizzard.
But is it likely? Not really.
The process of closing lanes of traffic for planned events, such as maintenance or construction, requires permits, administrative meetings, contract stipulations, federal guidelines, and OK’s from on-site engineers that would make it difficult to institute a unilateral lane closure or traffic detour without eliciting some raised eyebrows, in the same way the New Jersey bridge lane closure immediately sparked skepticism from all corners.
At weekly meetings, the state Department of Transportation brings together a gaggle of in-house staff, including electricians, plumbers, structural engineers, construction and maintenance workers, as well as outside contractors, utilities representatives, and permit recipients to talk about upcoming projects that require traffic detours.
The conversations often result in shuffled construction schedules, as officials coordinate to make sure that there are not too many closed lanes in one region or cancel a scheduled lane closure in light of sporting events or concerts.
“The purpose is to evaluate and prioritize what everyone needs to do, whether or not work can take place nearby or in tandem with something else, or not; and to develop a schedule based on those needs and priorities,” said MassDOT spokesman Michael Verseckes.
Those planned closures are also subject to many restrictions. The maximum width, length, and duration of lane closures is written into construction contracts. Even when window-washers rappel down the side of the Prudential Center and a lane of traffic is closed on the Massachusetts Turnpike in case of a fallen squeegee or bucket, the closure requires a MassDOT permit.
And if traffic backs up too badly because of a lane closure, Verseckes said, the state agency has the right to immediately put any project on hold to allow traffic to flow freely.
“The resident engineer for the project has the responsibility to ensure a contract’s traffic management plan is functioning,” Verseckes said. “If not, he or she has the ability to stop a job and order the contractor to clear off the roadway.”
MassDOT would try to avoid scheduling a nonemergency closure of such scale for peak hours, said spokeswoman Sara Lavoie.
“The ideal timing would be for such work to happen during off-peak hours, if it’s not an emergency,” said Lavoie. “We certainly consider typical traffic volumes and the disruption to traffic flow a lane closure would cause before establishing the closure.”
In case of emergencies such as car crashes, on-site commanders from the police and fire departments can make determinations of when and how to limit the flow of traffic, using input from traffic engineers watching video feeds from the state’s Highway Operations Center.
“Staff who help to coordinate the response to something like a crash typically have a feel for what would be needed based on the initial call for assistance,” Verseckes said. “For a vehicle breakdown, usually one lane will need to be taken; if it’s a crash, oftentimes two.”
In Massachusetts, any planned traffic interruption on the scale of the George Washington Bridge lane closures would be prefaced by a media blitz, Lavoie said, similar to the one that preceded the closure of the Callahan Tunnel, the elimination of one direction of traffic on the Longfellow Bridge, and the Tobin Bridge steel preservation and painting project that sometimes reduces traffic from three lanes to two.
As for the “traffic study,” the one that was initally cited as the cause of the New Jersey traffic jams: No way that would happen in Massachusetts, Verseckes said.
That’s not even how traffic studies work: You are not supposed to interrupt traffic to study it.
“We don’t close anything to study the effects of traffic,” Verseckes said.