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Construction makes Mass. Turnpike a road to misery

Afternoon traffic on the Mass Pike on Friday, August 8.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff)

Afternoon traffic on the Mass Pike on Friday, August 8.

It is evidence of the bleak state of matters that the staff at Dunkin’ Donuts in Framingham started to take notice the last few weeks when Bill Sell arrived increasingly early.

They’ve wondered aloud why he, and many of the other morning regulars, are standing in line for their daily jolt of caffeine at least 20 minutes ahead of schedule.

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Two words: the Pike.

“On a good day, it’s an extra 20 minutes. On a bad day, it’s quite a bit more than that,” said Sell, who works at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston. “And I have no idea how bad it will be once we hit Labor Day, because the schools are back and everyone’s back from vacation.”

Any daily traveler on the Massachusetts Turnpike has noticed: Starting in July, construction on a stretch of Interstate 90 in Boston began causing disruption, with the left lane blocked in both directions by concrete barriers.

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The $22.3 million project, which will rehabilitate the Commonwealth Avenue overpass and a 1.4-mile stretch of the median from there to the Dalton Street overpass, has had ripple effects, adding costly minutes to commuters’ daily drive.

Commuters say they dread that the project will be in place for the better part of two years. But their ire has a more immediate target: The construction ruined the usual August respite from traffic.

‘It used to be you’d just sail right in. But the population has grown, and the number of drivers has increased.’

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This year, the August traffic was worse then ever.

“The Pike in the summer, it’s always the quietest point of the year. You’d go 65 until you got to the Crowne Plaza [hotel in Newton], and you didn’t really have to tap the brakes all the way up to the Brighton tolls,” Sell said. “But that hasn’t happened this year.”

The construction has been like turning up the heat on the long-simmering frustration of drivers who, over the last several decades, have endured worsening congestion, year after year.

From 2009 to last year, traffic through the Allston tolls increased 6 percent – an extra 2,039,833 cars breezing (or crawling) through that stretch of road annually.

Even a few years ago, commuters say, it wasn’t so bad. It’s a view supported by statistics from the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization. Back in spring 2007, the average speed on the Pike entering the Back Bay tunnel between 7 and 10 a.m. weekdays was 40.3 miles per hour.

Now? The Pike during morning rush hour is more parking lot than freeway.

“It used to be you’d just sail right in,” said Michael Davis of Newton, who drives into the Financial District weekday mornings for work. “But the population has grown, and the number of drivers has increased.”

And the temporary lane closures have intensified the issues.

“I’m expecting an absolute nightmare once we go past Labor Day,” Davis said.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation defends the construction, saying officials assessed other ways the project could have been completed while keeping traffic flowing. Because of limited space between the sides of the highway and the proximity of commuter rail tracks, it was considered impossible to do the project without shutting one lane of traffic in each direction.

“We feel that this design is the only means to get the project done on a timely basis and still maintain safe operation of all of the needs and uses in this immediate area,” MassDOT spokesman Michael Verseckes said.

Commuters have complained to the agency that they don’t see anyone working on the closed lanes. But right now, Verseckes said, most of the work is happening at night. (Putting out construction crews during the day, even if they are blocked by a concrete barrier, can be distracting to drivers and further slows traffic.)

Much of the current construction is prep work. At the base of the 52-year-old Commonwealth Avenue bridge, workers have had to strip off asphalt to assess the bridge’s foundation while starting to build a jacking system to hold up the roadway while the foundation is rebuilt.

Additionally, they are starting to cut away at the median to allow vehicles to cross over to lanes on the opposite side of the highway, a traffic diversion that will occur at later points in the project.

“We realize how frustrating this is for folks,” Verseckes said. “But everything has to be carefully weighed to ensure we aren’t creating any new or additional safety hazards by adding or subtracting any elements to the existing lane restrictions and closures.”

Rick Dimino, president of A Better City — an organization of business leaders who work on development and infrastructure issues — defended the agency.

“The lane closures are, and will be, inconvenient. However, the implications of not fixing this section of the turnpike relate directly to safety risks, unscheduled repairs, and greater congestion,” Dimino said. “The Allston extension of the turnpike is in significant disrepair.”

But that’s little consolation for the people who have had their schedules interrupted by the additional traffic.

For Davis, the increasingly lengthy commute means he has to leave significantly earlier for work — and that has had a ripple effect. He has to budget time later in the day for appointments, because he can never guarantee he will be able to arrive at work by 9 a.m.

The traffic has also taken a toll on his exercise routine. He has had to switch from his favored morning workout — a 75- to 80-minute bike ride — to shorter jogs, because he is left with a smaller window between sunrise and the time he must depart for work.

“Now, my schedule is really getting squeezed,” he said.

And Sell, the Framingham commuter, isn’t the only one in his family who has experienced the dramatic effects of the closed lanes. His son, Jared Sell, commutes with him to attend classes at Suffolk University. The lengthier commute made it nearly impossible for him to get to 9 a.m. summer classes.

“We have left 1½ to 2 hours before and still barely make it on time,” Jared Sell said. “Coming from Framingham and during the summer, that’s just insane.”

There is an upside. As his father listens to books on tape, Jared usually tries to grab some extra minutes of sleep in the passenger’s seat. A longer trip into Boston means a little more shut-eye — and time to enjoy his repast from Dunkin’.

“It’s a lose-lose to commute to Boston,” Jared Sell said, “but at least I have plenty of time to eat my bagel.”

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