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Callahan Tunnel’s closure opens possibilities

Construction detour paving way for wider use of little-known shortcuts

The tunnel project has prompted a detour in front of the Greater Boston Food Bank to the Haul Road. The Callahan is due to reopen March 12 after the major construction overhaul.

PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF

The tunnel project has prompted a detour in front of the Greater Boston Food Bank to the Haul Road. The Callahan is due to reopen March 12 after the major construction overhaul.

For years, it was the best-kept secret of the Big Dig: a system of shortcuts and tucked-away roadways that led magically to the Ted Williams Tunnel, an express pipeline to the airport.

But now, state officials are letting the cat out of the bag.

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Since the start of the three-month closure of the Callahan Tunnel in late December, Massachusetts Department of Transportation officials have been encouraging drivers — with bright orange detour signs, blog posts, and electronic message boards — to utilize a system of little-known shortcuts and high-occupancy vehicle lanes to more quickly reach the airport.

Teaching the region’s drivers about the back routes and shortcuts will cut down on Callahan-inspired traffic backup, they hope, helping better funnel the masses to Logan Airport and East Boston until the tunnel reopens March 12 after a major construction overhaul. But they also anticipate that the education efforts might have a more long-term effect: encouraging people to diversify their commuting options, alleviating some of the gridlock that plagues Boston’s road system year-round.

It’s a controversial prospect for the knowing few: truck drivers, taxi drivers, and savvy motorists who have relied on these shortcuts for years. To some, sharing the secret of the detour routes amounts to a grave betrayal.

Highway Administrator Frank DePaola admits that, over the years, he’s been surprised to see how few people are aware that there are super-speedy methods to bypass much of the traffic that plugs up the downtown area during rush hour — like high-occupancy vehicle lanes for cars with two or more people. Accessible from South Station, the South End, and Interstate 93, they whisk drivers directly to the entrance of the Ted Williams Tunnel. “I think the habit isn’t there to use it,” DePaola said. With the onslaught of Callahan-inspired detours, he continued, “maybe this will change their habits a little.”

The stretch of HOV lane that leads from Kneeland Street at South Station to the Ted Williams Tunnel has the capacity to accommodate 1,500 to 1,800 cars per hour. But before the Callahan closure, the road carried only about 200 cars per hour at the busiest times of day.

“Nobody ever uses this thing,” DePaola said. “They built it as part of the artery, but it’s hardly ever used.” Now, that lanes have been opened to all traffic, with no restrictions on the number of passengers, they hope that will change.

For that to happen, they’ll need to get the word out through a public campaign highlighting all the new possibilities.

Going north on Interstate 93 with the hopes of reaching the airport? Don’t get off at Exit 20 and take the Massachusetts Pike to the airport; instead, hang tight for a couple hundred more feet, shift into the left lane, and take a left exit to reach the high-occupancy vehicle lane. (Unlike the other HOV lanes, the restrictions on this one will be lifted only during peak congestion).

“Most people get off before they ever see it,” says DePaola.

And there are others. Driving to the airport from Chinatown? Take Surface Road southbound until it becomes Albany Street, pass the on-ramp for Interstate 93, and turn left onto Traveler Street to access the entrance to the Express Detour lane for I-90 eastbound.

Cutting south through East Boston toward Logan? Skip a half-mile of traffic on Route 1A and jump on the Martin A. Coughlin Bypass Road, accessible from Chelsea Street.

Need to reach Eastie from I-93 southbound? Get off on Exit 18, as if you’re headed for South Bay shopping center, and look for the detour signs to turn left onto the South Boston Bypass Road, previously closed to all but taxis and industrial vehicles, but now open to everyone for the duration of the closure.

Officials have begun traffic counts to tabulate just how many people are opting for these new shortcuts, and what effects they have on relieving congestion. That data will help officials determine whether it may be possible, and realistic, to permanently lift the carpool and industrial vehicle restrictions that otherwise rule these little-known roadways. Perhaps, some say, these roads can serve as a permanent release valve on traffic bursting at the seams on Interstate 93 and in the Seaport District.

It’s a controversial prospect. Last year, business owners on the South Boston Waterfront said they were opposed to opening up the South Boston Bypass Road for wider use, fearing that the increased cars would clog the roadway and hamper their ability to deliver goods quickly. Some lodged complaints with DePaola about the opening of the bypass road as a Callahan detour.

But since then, some have said that opening up the bypass road hasn’t been so disastrous.

“I haven’t heard any complaints from any of our drivers,” said Dennis Kelley, co-owner of Commercial Lobster Co., a seafood wholesaler. “I guess that’s a good thing.”

The experience with the newly opened bypass road has made him more amenable to the idea of making it a permanent thing — but only if it continues on a trial basis.

“You don’t want to get locked into anything,” Kelley said. “If it goes like it’s gone so far, it’s not really an issue.”

Charlie Di Pesa, owner of F.J. O’Hara & Sons, another Seaport District seafood company, said he had not been aware that the bypass road had been opened to regular vehicles.

Still, he said, he preferred that the road revert to its industrial-only status after the Callahan project finishes.

“It should stay commercial-only, because it’s good for us and we can get around a lot easier,” Di Pesa said.

As for taxi drivers, that other subset of in-the-know motorists, MassDOT’s decision to spill the shortcut beans has been met with some trepidation.

Jean Orgeat, a Boston cab driver since 1977, said the newly publicized detours and shortcuts haven’t affected him much — he works mostly on weekends — but may affect other cab drivers proud of their ability to wow customers with an express trip to the airport.

Carlo Maignan, of Dorchester, who has driven a cab in Boston for seven years, took an opposite approach: More traffic on those quick routes, he said, will mean slower rides to the airport, but bigger fares.

“It’s better for us, money-wise,” Maignan said. But, he acknowledged that it’s tough for customers.

Plus, Maignan added, even with all the detour signs and electronic messages, it may be a while before most drivers become aware of the quicker routes to the airport. After all, he said, it was years as a cab driver before he ever knew the shortcuts existed.

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

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