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Forever 128

Fourth lane is rolling north

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/file

The bridge over Route 128/Interstate 93 near Houghton’s Pond in Milton offered a view of the widening project in July 2010.

A $353 million revamp of Route 128 that is adding lanes and replacing bridges may soon be headed to a town near you.

The eight-year-old push to add a fourth lane to a key stretch of 128 has steadily wound its way north from Randolph and is poised to move into Needham as it enters its final lap.

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Still, whether all this flurry of work will actually improve traffic flow on 128 or simply be a stopgap measure is a matter of debate among authorities.

State transportation officials contend that the work, although needed to boost safety, will also help keep cars and trucks moving along at key interchanges and choke points.

But Eric Bourassa, transportation manager of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, worries that such improvements may be short-lived.

“When you add a lane, you have an improvement, but you end up encouraging more use,’’ he noted.

A federal mandate aimed at barring the use of breakdown lanes for regular traffic helped spur the effort to put in a fourth lane, said Sara Lavoie, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

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A new fourth lane should be ready to use on 128 between Route 24 in Randolph and Route 109 at the Dedham-Westwood line by next fall. The widening project is already complete between University Avenue and 128’s Interstate 95/I-93 interchange, and also between routes 1 and 109, Lavoie said.

In addition, federal money has come through to add a fifth lane between Route 138 and the I-95/93 interchange to help ease bottlenecks there, she said.

Meanwhile, work has begun on extending the fourth lane to the north into Needham, with plans to eventually roll it out all the way up to the highway’s interchange with Route 9 in Wellesley.

However, the next phase of the project will not be complete until 2015, with plans to replace a number of bridges along the highway, including over 109, the Charles River, Route 135, and Great Plain Avenue, according to Lavoie.

Other bridge work planned for the Needham-Wellesley stretch of the highway is still being designed.

Also included in the final phase is a new interchange at Kendrick Street in Needham.

The new ramp system and bridge will provide direct highway access to the New England/Needham Business Center on Kendrick Street, and to Wells Office Park in Newton, on what becomes Nahanton Street, Lavoie said.

Needham officials are banking on the new highway connection to boost business at the New England/Needham Business Center, which has been struggling to fill empty office space.

Special Town Meeting in Needham recently approved new zoning rules that will allow for taller buildings and greater density at the office park.

“For it to be really successful, it really needs to have its own offramp,’’ said Devra Bailin, Needham’s economic development director.

State transportation officials contend there will be a “moderate’’ increase in capacity from the addition of the fourth lane.

The addition of the new lane will be accompanied by a corresponding return to limiting use of the highway’s breakdown lane for emergencies, Lavoie said.

The new lane, in turn, will accommodate more drivers, especially those who had been reluctant to use the breakdown lane.

“The fourth travel lane will certainly provide some moderate increase in capacity, but mainly the improved level of service for the travel lane and improved safety is the primary goal for the project,’’ Lavoie said in a written statement.

Local transportation and planning activists stress they are in favor of any efforts to maintain 128 and keep its bridges in good repair.

But they are also concerned that any new increase in highway capacity will be quickly overwhelmed as more drivers pile onto the newly expanded, and less crowded, stretch of 128.

One possibility is that drivers who have been using local roads instead of the highway may be encouraged to jump back on, noted Monica Tibbits, executive director of the 128 Business Council.

There are several examples around the country of failed efforts to ease traffic congestion by adding lanes, including in Atlanta, which has highways with 17 lanes, Tibbits said.

For its part, MAPC is forecasting a steady growth in development along 128, with dozens of projects in various stages of planning and construction, said agency official Bourassa.

The only viable long-term solution may be a greater reliance on public transportation, including a dedicated lane for buses, Tibbits said.

“It shows the state is being responsive to the needs of 128 and that is fantastic, but we are going to need more,’’ she said.

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis@hotmail.com.

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