Two weeks ago, state highway chief Frank DePaola stood in a packed Somerville school auditorium and swore up and down that he’s just as eager as the city of Somerville is to see the old elevated McGrath Highway torn down. Then he spent the next two hours insisting that the state needs to spend $11 million fixing up an elevated roadway it wants to tear down.
State highway officials contend they have no other choice but to shovel good money after a blighted highway overpass. But that’s only true so long as they insist on looking at the McGrath through the eyes of the engineers who built it in the 1950s.
There’s no question that the McGrath is in awful shape. The overpass that soars over Washington Street in East Somerville is rusting and crumbling. Steel rebar sits exposed. Work crews have rigged nets to keep falling chunks of concrete from raining down on passing motorists and pedestrians. Engineers have classified the overpass as functionally obsolete and structurally deficient, meaning the roadway either needs to be fixed, or it needs to be torn down. The bizarre thing is, the state is putting some serious effort, and money, into doing both.
MassDOT planners have been studying the demolition of the elevated McGrath for a year. The roadway is at the end of its structural life, and planners are sketching out scenarios for bringing the overpass down to the ground, and reimagining the highway as a boulevard. MassDOT recently completed a similar study in Jamaica Plain, where it committed to replacing a four-lane elevated highway with an at-grade roadway.
The movement against elevated stretches of highway is mostly a financial one: Elevated highways are far more costly to maintain than grounded roads. But in Somerville, the McGrath is an economic development liability.
The McGrath severs much of East Somerville from the rest of the city. This physical and psychological barrier didnt matter so much when railroad yards and low-slung industrial facilities occupied the bulk of the acreage on the highway’s east side. The Green Line extension will change all that. With a rapid transit line running up the east side of the McGrath, from Medford to Boston, the 180 acres in Somerville’s Brickbottom and Inner Belt neighborhoods will become highly valuable real estate. Somerville’s 20-year master plan, released last week, anticipates massive redevelopment efforts in the corridor.
Those efforts will be stunted if they aren’t able to physically connect to Union Square, which lies immediately to the west of the McGrath, and to the rest of the city. So the city’s politicians and residents have been lobbying hard to tear down the McGrath, and replace it with a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare that would foster connections across the current dividing line.
Meetings about $11 million highway deck repair projects seldom draw crowds. But not all highway contracts are aimed at preserving roadways as universally hated as the McGrath. Last week, in Somerville, the McGrath contract drew all kinds — veteran anti-highway activists who cut their teeth in the battles against the Inner Belt and Interstate 93, artists from the Brickbottom, and young advocates for streets scaled to people, not cars. They all said the same thing: Instead of fixing the McGrath so it stays up until it’s ready to be torn down, start the demolition now.
DePaola cast the $11 million repair contract as “the minimum of what we need to do to maintain a safe structure.” Which is true, because DePaola and his engineers are working off a different baseline than Somerville is. The McGrath needs work to keep functioning as a four-lane, moderately fast highway connecting the northern suburbs to Boston, but it doesn’t serve that function anymore. The highway has lost almost 30 percent of its total traffic load since 1995, and it mostly acts as a local road now.
If the McGrath overpass isn’t repaired, highway engineers said last week, the road will have to be closed to trucks. That’s a false choice, since trucks now represent 2 percent of the traffic on the overpass. And it’s symptomatic of the stubbornly upside-down way the state has approached the McGrath. Instead of pouring $11 million into keeping trucks and four lanes of traffic on a roadway nobody wants, the state should be seizing an opportunity to knock the thing down.
Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at CommonWealth magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.