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‘It’s going to have a major impact’: Boston neighborhoods brace for Sumner Tunnel construction, closures

This scene of traffic at the mouth of the Sumner Tunnel was taken during the morning rush hour in December 2018.David L. Ryan

Upcoming repairs and closures of the Sumner Tunnel will not only affect Boston motorists but residents and businesses in the North End, East Boston, and South Boston, state officials said.

Officials from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation have said the Sumner Tunnel will be closed on weekends starting in June and will shut down completely for four months next year in order to do a “top-to-bottom restoration,” according to the project’s website. The 88-year-old tunnel beneath Boston Harbor is a heavily traveled route linking East Boston and Logan International Airport to the rest of the city.

The closures will bring more traffic to East Boston and South Boston and will cause “unpleasant noise and vibrations” in the North End, according to the MassDOT.

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East Boston resident Andrew Pike, a board member of the Jeffries Point Neighborhood Association, said people in his neighborhood are concerned about what lies ahead when the tunnel is closed.

“Everybody’s absolutely dreading it,” Pike said in a phone interview. “It’s going to have a major impact on people trying to get downtown.”

The Sumner Tunnel, which opened in 1934, carries traffic in one direction under Boston Harbor, bringing vehicles from East Boston and Logan International Airport into downtown Boston. The Callahan Tunnel, which opened in 1961, carries traffic in the opposite direction, from the North End to East Boston.

In 2014, the Callahan Tunnel was shut down for more than two months for repairs and reopened to traffic two days ahead of schedule.

When the Sumner is closed for repairs, MassDOT officials said East Boston residents will see “more traffic, noise, and pollution,” and traffic will also increase in South Boston and along the waterfront as drivers detour through the Ted Williams Tunnel.

Beginning the weekend of June 10, the Sumner Tunnel will close from 10 p.m. on Friday to 5 a.m. on Monday for 36 weeks, excluding holidays, according to the MassDOT Sumner Tunnel website. The full shutdown starts in May 2023, when the tunnel will be closed seven days a week through September 2023. The weekend closures will then continue intermittently until February 2024, officials said.

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When the Sumner Tunnel toll booths were removed in 2017, Pike said, there was a “dramatic amount of traffic” as drivers were detoured through the Ted Williams Tunnel. He said he “can only imagine” what it will be like when the Sumner is shut down for several months.

“The weekend closures is one thing. When it’s closed completely for months at a time... I think it’s going to have significant impact on the level of traffic trying to go through the Ted Williams tunnel,” he said.

Pike said there are also concerns about the impact on emergency services.

“There’s no real hospital on this side of the tunnel,” he said. “It’s going to increase the travel time to hospitals” in Boston.

Pike said he expects more people to take public transportation during the Sumner Tunnel restoration project, which will “make for a very crowded T.”

The MBTA suspended service on the Blue Line between the Bowdoin and Airport stations for repairs from April 25 through May 13.

Pike said he wishes the ferry service that’s been running during the Blue Line closure would continue while the tunnel is closed for repairs. “It’s a great alternative that’s been well received,” he said.

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But as it stands, there are no plans to keep the ferry going when the Sumner Tunnel is closed.

“Alternate ferry service will continue to be provided during the [Blue Line] service suspension, though there are not currently plans at this time to continue the ferry service beyond that,” said MBTA spokeswoman Lisa Battiston.

Detour routes will be clearly marked and informational signs will be posted at intersections in East Boston to make people aware of the Sumner restoration project and when the tunnel will be closed, officials said.

In the North End, noise and vibration will be monitored and “noise suppression devices, enclosures, and barriers” will be used as needed, MassDOT officials said. The construction team will use wetting agents and secure covers on trucks to keep dust under control, officials said.

When it opened in 1934, the Sumner Tunnel was the only tunnel that ran under the harbor and it carried traffic in both directions. It was the first traffic tunnel in Massachusetts, and it remains one of the oldest in the country, according to MassDOT.

MassDOT officials said the Sumner restoration work will address many issues, including exposed rebar on the ceiling, crumbling concrete, rusted reinforcements, cracked wall panels, broken light fixtures, and poor pavement conditions. The ventilation, drainage, security, and fire suppression systems also need to be brought up to code, officials said.

The cost of restoring the Sumner Tunnel will be about $157 million, according to a MassDOT spokeswoman.

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East Boston resident Neelesh Batra, who serves on the board of the Gove Street Citizens Association, said he understands why the work needs to be done on the Sumner Tunnel.

“I’m OK with it. I know our infrastructure is old,” Batra said. “I’m not exactly sure how they would go about the repairs they’re trying to do without shutting it down like this.”

“The full closure is going to be a headache. But it sounds reasonable, and we’ll get through it.”

MassDOT officials set up a specific email address (Sumner100@dot.state.ma.us) for the public to use to submit questions, comments, and concerns about the Sumner Tunnel project.

Additional information about the Sumner Tunnel restoration work and maps of the detour routes can be found on the project’s website at www.mass.gov/sumner-tunnel-restoration-project.


Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.