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Officials warn commuters to plan for weeks-long shutdown of Sumner Tunnel

‘We know it’s going to be harder to get into Boston, or to the airport, when you have a major artery like this shut down,’ said Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll on a tour of the tunnel Saturday.

Workers on a lift conducted repair work to the ceiling of the Sumner Tunnel on Saturday.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

As if Boston’s commuting woes weren’t bad enough, officials on Saturday urged people to prepare for the imminent, weeks-long closure of the Sumner Tunnel as they gave reporters a tour of the nearly 90-year-old structure that crews will be working to repair.

The Sumner, a vital lifeline between East Boston and the rest of the city, which carries about 39,000 vehicles daily, will be closed July 5 through the end of August, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Officials are encouraging people to look at other options, including Blue Line subway service, ferry lines, and the commuter rail, to get around.

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“We know there are going to be traffic impacts. We know it’s going to be harder to get into Boston, or to the airport, when you have a major artery like this shut down,” Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll told reporters during the tour of the tunnel construction work Saturday morning.

The Sumner, which opened in 1934, is among the oldest traffic tunnels in the country, according to data compiled by the Federal Highway Administration.

But after nearly a century, corrosion and simple wear and tear have taken their toll: Pavement conditions are poor, and exposed rebar can be seen in the ceiling, according to MassDOT. Safety inspections have found crumbling concrete, cracked walls, and rusted reinforcements, the agency said. In addition, the tunnel’s ventilation, fire suppression, and drainage systems need to be brought up to modern standards.

Since last spring, the Sumner has been closed most weekends to allow for the ongoing, $160 million restoration project, which includes repairs to the ceiling, plus the addition of “fireproof” boards and installation of new equipment such as lights and utility conduits, according to MassDOT.

Workers inside the haze of the Sumner Tunnel doing repair work Saturday morning. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

During Saturday morning’s tour, construction workers were busy working on wiring for traffic cameras and lights, painting the ceilings, and installing pre-cast arches, which are expected to help improve the strength and longevity of the nearly mile-long tunnel, said Jonathan Gulliver, the state’s highway administrator.

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This summer’s closure is expected to cause greater congestion in the Ted Williams Tunnel and on the Tobin Bridge, Gulliver said.

“Our advice to drivers, especially if you’re going to the airport or if you have a time critical appointment, is really give yourself as much time as possible,” Gulliver said.

Officials will keep the tunnel open on weekends with historically high traffic volumes, including the upcoming July Fourth holiday, according to MassDOT. Once the tunnel reopens for workweek commutes in September, weekend closures will be conducted during the fall and winter. A second weeks-long closure is expected next summer.

A worker drills into the concrete wall of the Sumner Tunnel as new lights were being installed.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The full shutdowns are expected to shave off 10 months from the construction time, and eliminate the need to close the tunnel for 40 additional weekends, according to MassDOT.

State officials said they are trying to ease the costs for people who will take public transportation during the tunnel closure — and hope they decide to continue to get around that way when construction is complete.

“We’re really hoping that people will get out of their cars, ditch that drive, and like it and stay using the commuter rail or public transportation afterwards,” Driscoll said.

Among the alternative travel options during the closure: Logan Express will offer a 25 percent discount, with no cost for children under age 17. In Chelsea, five MBTA bus routes will be free. The East Boston ferry will be free and commuter rail customers on the Newburyport/Rockport line will be charged a subway fare of $2.40 per trip, as will riders on the Winthrop and Lynn-to-Boston ferries, according to MassDOT.

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In East Boston, where the closure will have more impact, the MBTA will offer free trips on the Blue Line and $2 parking fees for its garages and lots. Trains will run every six minutes.

Workers wear respirators inside the Sumner Tunnel Saturday morning. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The MBTA’s subway system has been plagued by safety failures that have put it under federal scrutiny. It has had to impose speed restrictions over track defects, which has caused slowdowns in subway service.

The Blue Line had 14 speed restrictions in place as of Saturday, the fewest of the MBTA’s four subway lines, according to the agency data dashboard. But those restrictions affected nearly one-third of the line’s tracks.

Lawmakers representing East Boston have called for the Blue Line restrictions to be lifted in time for the tunnel closure.

State Representative Adrian Madaro, who represents East Boston, was on the tour and said in an interview that his constituents understand the tunnel work needs to be done, despite the disruption.

“It will impact our quality of life; I would never sugarcoat things,” Madaro said. “This will be challenging.”

A worker walked past construction equipment inside the Sumner Tunnel Saturday morning. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff




John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com. Elllie Wolfe can be reached at ellie.wolfe@globe.com. Follow her @elliew0lfe.