Where does Dorchester meet the sea? At times, right on Morrissey Boulevard.
On top of traffic that spills south off nearby Kosciuszko traffic circle and north from Quincy, the roadway is prone to flooding during coastal storms and in high tides.
That’s why in 1997, state lawmakers pushed to elevate the road, lobbying the Metropolitan District Commission to create an improvement plan. It was never funded.
That’s why in 2015, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, MDC’s successor agency, completed a study of road conditions, and completed about a quarter of a redesign in 2017. That project was, again, dropped.
And that’s why, at a meeting Tuesday night, local, city, and state officials promised that this time really, truly would be different.
At the first meeting of a new Morrissey Boulevard Commission, officials began the process — once more into the breach — of drafting a plan to renovate the decades-old roadway. That will include raising its elevation to avoid future floods and modifying its layout to improve traffic flow for cars, public transit, bikes, and pedestrians.
This decade’s deadline for a plan: June 1, 2024.
State Senator Nick Collins, a South Boston Democrat who sits on the Morrissey Commission and was involved in the 2017 effort to elevate the road, noted that the boulevard — owned by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation — runs through a patchwork of overlapping city and state agency’s jurisdictions. That means any change will require a delicate network of compromises that has, so far, crumbled before any plan could be finalized.
In an interview before the meeting, Collins said the commission hopes to “insulate this discussion from politics as much as we can.”
Collins said the project has seen “fits and starts,” but the last time a Morrissey redesign was on the table, an impasse between the state and city administrations caused the plan to fizzle out — after millions of dollars were already budgeted for the renovation.
“We’ve suffered in the past from different parties walking away from the table,” Collins said in a phone call Tuesday afternoon.
In 2017, DCR proposed eliminating one vehicle lane on Morrissey Boulevard to make room for more bike lanes and foot traffic. But locals, including then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh, said eliminating a lane would only worsen congestion.
With 25 percent of its planning complete, the project stalled, and Morrissey has seen countless floods of water and traffic since.
Ethan Britland, manager of the Morrissey project, said the new commission will work “to improve mobility for all,” minimize flooding risk, and “ultimately present a plan with design concept alternatives that identify short-term as well as long-term investments.”
Britland said this changing climate landscape, coupled with high development pressure around Morrissey Boulevard, lends new urgency to the project.
“The 2017 design did take into account future climate assumptions,” Britland told the crowd of dozens, who filled a conference room at the Southline building. “But, admittedly, they’re older, and climate assumptions and modeling changes quite frequently.”
Jacquelyn Goddard, a MassDOT spokesperson, said that the plan will be made public once completed.
The study area spans about 3.5 miles of Morrissey between Preble Street in South Boston to Neponset Circle in Dorchester, including Kosciuszko Circle — also known as K-Circle.
Goddard said the study’s $1.3 million budget includes $500,000 contributed by the city and $860,616 in MassDOT bond funds. She said it is too soon to say how much construction will cost, but those figures will be provided when the commission completes its report.
The Massachusetts Legislature first established the Morrissey Boulevard Commission in 2022, tasking it with evaluating current road conditions and developing a plan to improve congestion. The commission’s makeup was adjusted in 2023, making the Secretary of Transportation its chair.
Secretary Monica Tibbits-Nutt began Tuesday’s meeting by introducing the other eight members.
The commission is made up of James Arthur Jemison, chief of planning at the Boston Planning and Development Agency; DCR Commissioner Brian Arrigo; David Mullen, who represents the University of Massachusetts Building Authority; State Representatives Daniel Hunt and David Biele, Democrats of Dorchester and South Boston; Senator Collins; Boston City Councilor Frank Baker; and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, though she plans to delegate the role.
The mayor is still deciding who will fill that seat, but staff across cabinets will “all be engaged” in the planning process, Wu said in an interview.
Wu said commission members need to act with urgency while remaining focused on a clear pathway to funding.
She said improving access for things like public transportation and bicycles can help ease the entire flow of traffic, despite claims by drivers that fewer lanes always means more congestion.
“I think there’s a belief that if you shift around the way road space is allocated, someone is going to suffer, some community of commuters,” Wu said. “In fact, what we see is that, often, the traffic and congestion comes from everyone being muddled together in a really chaotic and unorganized way.”
The commission is slated to meet twice more before presenting its report to the Legislature.
Though the date has not been announced, project manager Britland said the body will present “more detailed” options for keeping the ocean at bay.