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Starts & Stops

Callahan detours force traffic-balancing at Ted Williams

You know Boston drivers are seriously angry when they start comparing our great state to . . . New Jersey.

This week, I received e-mails from two readers convinced that a new traffic maneuver conducted by State Police inside the eastbound Ted Williams Tunnel was reminiscent of a certain traffic scandal ensnaring the administration of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (who, incidentally, was in town this week).

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Readers, of course, will recall the sordid details: a three-day lane closure on the George Washington Bridge, a dubious reference to a “traffic study,” an incriminating e-mail from a Christie staffer that read, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.”

All along, New Jersey commuters who had experienced the lane closures firsthand insisted the same thing: while stuck in unbearable traffic, the lane closures hadn’t made any sense.

Some drivers in Massachusetts, such as Niki Vettel of Winthrop, have been having that same feeling.

Her e-mail subject line: “Are we having our own ‘Bridgegate scandal’ in the Ted Williams Tunnel?”

Vettel provided a remarkably thorough, if colorful, synopsis of the situation:

‘Why would they be making the only tunnel available to drivers MORE congested than it already is????’

Niki Vettel, commuter from Winthrop 
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“If you’ve gone through the Ted Williams tunnel anytime recently, you’ll see that at the HEIGHT of when rush hour starts — 3 p.m. — there are state troopers who, for no obvious reason, are creating horrible, horrible traffic back-ups by moving some yellow cones into some of the lanes on the EASTBOUND side of the tunnel, thereby creating this snarl.”

“I’ve seen the Staties move the cones over . . . and then, at some point, move the cones away,” she continued. “Given that the Callahan tunnel is closed now . . . of course the Ted Williams is seeing a lot more traffic — what is going on????

“Why would they be making the only tunnel available to drivers MORE congested than it already is????

“Have some members of Chris Christie’s staff decided to move to MA and take over Massport?!?!”

Lorraine of Revere had similar concerns. In her e-mail (subject line: “Trooper tunnel-gate”), she explained that her commute home on the Massachusetts Turnpike into the Ted Williams Tunnel from her Allston workplace, which had once taken 17 minutes, now takes nearly 40 minutes.

“What is the purpose except to cause extreme traffic bottlenecks everywhere they are present?” wrote Lorraine. She said the maneuver was “a boondoggle for drivers and a treasure trove for troopers on OT pay. Who made this happen and how do we stop it?”

Previously, I’d heard some mention of a traffic measure carried out by State Police to alleviate gridlock caused by the temporary closure of the Callahan Tunnel. But it sounded fishy. I passed along the concerns to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, as well as the messages from commuters who were — to put it diplomatically — unconvinced that the practice was helping traffic.

Their answer: Come over and see for yourself.

Fast-forward to this past Thursday afternoon, and I’m in a 12th-floor boardroom in MassDOT’s District 6 office, across the street from South Station.

At a long table strewn with laptops, Poland Spring water bottles, and large Dunkin’ cups, traffic engineers Dave Belanger and Cathy Archis and State Police Captain Thomas Reney watch a large flat-screen television displaying live feeds from nine different traffic cameras, all trained on spots throughout the system of roads, ramps, and tunnels that lead into the Ted Williams Tunnel.

“When people don’t understand what’s going on, it’s obvious that we’re evil,” Archis said from behind the screen of her laptop. “But we’re doing this deliberately.”

It was 4:15 p.m., and rush-hour traffic was just heating up.

They brought my attention to one of the camera feeds, showing Exit 20 off of Interstate 93 North, just at the part where the ramp splits — the left lane heads to Logan International Airport and East Boston, while the right lane takes you to South Station or the westbound Massachusetts Turnpike.

Cars in the left lane were barely moving, and the traffic was backing up. Quickly. Pretty soon, the buildup of congestion would begin to hamper the flow of passing cars.

Another camera feed revealed the source of the problem: The cars coming from I-93 and heading toward East Boston were trying to merge onto the eastbound Pike, about a half-mile before the entrance to the Ted Williams Tunnel, but the merging had slowed to a trickle. For every dozen vehicles that proceeded from I-90 eastbound, one or two were able to enter from the I-93 ramp.

Reney saw it, too. And he picked up his radio.

“Troop E to Ramp L,” Reney said.

“Ramp L,” the person on the radio responded.

“Will you take that lane, please,” Reney said.

Moments later, on the video screen, two troopers could be seen exiting an SUV parked at the merge zone, picking up the orange cones, and moving them into the scrum of cars proceeding east on the Pike, blocking the right-hand lane of traffic.

Forced by the police shooing them away from the cones, cars slowly began to shift into the left lane. There’s no doubt: They must have been infuriated. With no accident or holdup in sight, why restrict the traffic to a single lane?

But all of a sudden, the vehicles bunched up in the ramp from I-93 began moving a little more quickly, granted a buffer zone in which to merge easily. And 15 minutes later, the queue that had backed up onto I-93 had vanished.

“We want to keep this from backing up into the surface,” Belanger said.

“It’s all about storage,” Reney explained.

Then, Reney asked the same troopers to remove the cones, and called for another set of cones to be put out for a lane restriction — this time, closer to the Ted Williams Tunnel entrance, where Pike traffic merges with the South Boston Haul Road.

The operation moved in a cycle. Restrict a lane at the first ramp for 20 minutes. Restrict a lane at the second ramp for 20 minutes. Let traffic flow uninterrupted for 20 minutes, then start again.

“It’s just balancing,” Reney said, “that’s what we’re doing.”

They’ve been using this maneuver since the second week of January. They had noticed that traffic traveling eastbound from the Pike hadn’t been affected much by the Callahan detours, but those coming from I-93 were having a hard time.

Their efforts didn’t make traffic disappear. But it did seem somewhat like a fair allocation of the awfulness, giving folks from I-93 a reasonable chance to get to East Boston in about the same time as their counterparts on I-90.

The lane restrictions are planned to conclude once the Callahan Tunnel reopens on March 12.

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