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Somerville

McGrath overpass may come down

SOMERVILLE — The McCarthy Overpass on the McGrath Highway is a rusted relic of 1950s urban design and should be torn down, according to state transit planners.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is recommending the elevated portion of the highway in Somerville be rebuilt at street level.

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In a public meeting Wednesday in Somerville, planners outlined a proposed “boulevard-style” reconstruction of the overpass that carries McGrath over several cross streets, starting north at Medford Street, and ending south at the intersection of Somerville Avenue and Medford Street.

The new configuration would create new cross-street traffic intersections with crosswalks for pedestrians. Bike lanes and sidewalks would be added along the highway to make it more accessible for pedestrians, cyclists, and public transportation.

Ralph Denisco, a planner at Nelson/Nygaard, the company commissioned by MassDOT to study the roadway, said the plan would slow traffic along the highway, and increase the length of traffic time to get onto it, as a result of the four new cross-street intersections.

Using computer simulations, planners projected that the slower driving speeds created by the reconstruction would result in traffic diversions, both to nearby Iinterstate 93 and onto Somerville and Cambridge streets, Denisco said.

The plan would help reconnect East Somerville with the Union Square area through the Inner Belt and Brickbottom sections of the city, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said.

“They are neighborhoods of the past that we want to bring back,” he said.

Curtatone has long supported tearing down the overpass, which he called a “monument to urban blight.”

“There is no bigger barrier in East Somerville, and perhaps this entire city, than McGrath Highway,” he said.

Data-driven models and a study a working group tasked with the overpass found the boulevard development to be the best option among four that were considered.

One called for an access road that would run parallel with the highway to reduce intersections, while another included a rotary at the intersection with Somerville Avenue and Medford Street. Under that plan, there would be no left turns off the highway at cross streets, and traffic looking to make a left would have to go to the rotary and turn around.

Another option, provided by the city, called for a boulevard development along with an east-west connecting road built through the Inner Belt, an area south of Washington Street between McGrath Highway and Interstate 93.

The studies found the boulevard choice to be the most complete streets option, meaning it would be the most beneficial to all modes of transportation, Denisco said.

The recommendation to turn the section of the highway into a boulevard is the conclusion of the “Grounding McGrath” study, first undertaken in 2011.

On Wednesday, some residents voiced their concern that the plan may still be envisioned as more of a highway project than a neighborhood one.

“It looks like we’re putting the VFW Parkway through Somerville. I don’t want to see that,” said Robert Buchanan, a Walnut Street resident.

Carice Reddien of East Cambridge said she hoped planners would consider pedestrians and bicycles more as planning begins in more detail.

“I see a freeway design on the ground,” she said.

Denisco said the actual planning of the project was in its earliest stages, and that improvements would be made.

“It is not at this moment a perfect alternative,” he said. “I think there are a lot of changes and tweaks we shoud make.”

There is no projected date when the current highway will be taken down, said Frank DePaola, the state’s highway administrator.

“We have many more meetings and many more years to go before we see the overpass come down,” he said.

The overpass is currently under construction to address rust issues, a project expected to cost over $10 million.

Maryann Heuston, the alderwoman for Ward 2 in Somerville, said she was pleased to know the highway would be coming down, even if it would be well into the future.

“I see just the very first step; we have a long way to go,” she said. “The most exciting thing for me is that at some point in my lifetime I will not be looking at that monster that’s there.”

Jarret Bencks can be reached at Bencks.Globe@gmail.com
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