For motorists who have endured years of delays and distractions due to construction on Route 128, it seemed like the day would never come.
But state transportation officials say the public will shortly begin to realize the fruits of the massive project to add a fourth lane to both sides of the highway from Route 24 in Randolph to Route 9 in Wellesley.
After four years of construction, the state this fall plans to open the newly built fourth lanes along the first segment of the 13.7-mile route, the 5.7-mile stretch from Randoph to Route 109 in Westwood, according to Michael Verseckes, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.
The Randolph-to-Westwood phase of the add-a-lane project will actually continue beyond the fall to allow for construction of a fifth travel lane in each direction between the Interstate 95/Interstate 93 interchange and Route 138. That feature is being added to the project as a result of a recent federal funding award.
But the opening of the fourth lanes will allow drivers to experience for the first time what supporters say has made the project worthwhile, even with its headaches.
“We certainly understand it’s frustrating to the commuter to see it still ongoing,” Tom O’Rourke, president of the Neponset Valley Chamber of Commerce, said of the project. “People start to say, ‘Is it ever going to be done?’ But at least in this section it’s pretty close to being completed, and people soon will start to see the benefits of it.”
He said the primary benefit is the improved safety from better traffic flow and the ban on traveling in the breakdown lane that will take effect when the fourth lanes open.
“There is also the economic benefit to it as well, as people find it easier to get around the region and commuters to get in and out of the area,” O’Rourke said. “It makes it more attractive for businesses in the area if they know their employees can get to and from work.”
Westwood Town Administrator Mike Jaillet said his town welcomes the pending openings of the new travel lanes.
“It’s a very important project,” he said. “I think the communities south of Route 9 where it narrows down to three lanes from the four on the rest of 128 have been underserved by the lack of capacity of the road system. That’s impaired our ability to attract economic development.”
Jaillet predicted that the enhanced flow of traffic resulting from the addition of the fourth lanes will prompt developers and businesses to invest in the area.
He cautioned, though, that “to fully maximize what we are going to get out of the add-a-lane project as far as improved traffic flow, we really need to get the I-93/I-95 interchange fixed as well.”
Jaillet said the current project includes some improvements to the interchange, but that a larger reconfiguration is needed. He said the state has begun to design those changes, “but we are going to need to have some commitment towards an expediting funding source to pay for the construction.”
The overall $350 million add-a-lane project also involves replacing 24 bridges, new signs, and drainage improvements. To construct the new travel lanes, contractors are narrowing the median strip. The Federal Highway Administration is paying 80 percent of the costs, with the state funding 20 percent. Design and engineering began in 2004.
The $41.98 million Randolph-to-Westwood phase is being carried out by McCourt Construction along the highway stretch that includes sections of Randolph, Canton, Milton, Dedham, and Westwood.
Verseckes said the new lanes are in place between the Interstate 95/Interstate 93 interchange and University Avenue; between Route 1 and Route 109; and southeast of the interchange to Randolph. But with other sections still to be done, he said it would be unsafe to open the new lanes now since drivers would have to shift between three and four lanes.
The next phase of the project, now ongoing, involves constructing new travel lanes and bridge replacements along a 4.5-mile stretch of the highway from Route 109 in Westwood through Dedham to the Needham railroad bridge. That phase began in mid-2010 and is scheduled for completion in the summer of 2015.
The final leg of the project involves adding lanes and undertaking bridge work along the 3.5-mile stretch of the highway from the Needham railroad bridge to the Route 9 interchange in Wellesley, which will be rebuilt. Design work for that phase is 75 percent complete. Construction is targeted to begin next spring, with the goal of being substantially complete by 2016.
Eric Bourassa, director of transportation planning for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, believes the project will bring benefits to the region, but said it remains to be seen how long lasting they are.
“Certainly, in the near term, it is going to relieve traffic congestion on Route 128,” he said. “And it will have measurable air quality benefits in the short term because people are not going to be stuck in traffic. They’ll be able to get to their destinations fast, which is good for economic development along the corridor because it’s a major job hub.” He also cited the safety benefits of smoother flowing traffic.
“The long-term picture gets a little more cloudy,” Bourassa added. “That’s where we do need constant rigorous evaluation of these add-a-lane projects,” noting that typically over the long term, the expanded capacity on the roads “just gets filled up again” as motorists adjust traveling patterns and new development emerges.
As an agency that promotes smart growth, Bourassa said, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council “wants to make sure we balance these kinds of highway-widening projects with making sure we have a strong public transportation network so we can provide people with those alternatives.”