Amid the municipal moonscape that was Boston before the Big Dig’s bulldozers finally finished, radio and television stations around the city broadcast soaring messages of hope.
Traffic jams were doomed, those messages said. A $2 million ad campaign, paid for by the public, was as believable as an hourlong trip to Cape Cod on July Fourth.
But I so wanted to believe.
While I sat motionless, fruitlessly searching for Ho Chi Minh’s colorful profile on the gas tank next to the Southeast Expressway, an announcer intoned: “Drive time will have to get a whole lot shorter, because in the not-too-distant future, Boston traffic will be a thing of the past.’’
This was not meant to be ironic — or some expensive hoax. The 1998 ads were lighthearted, a spokesman for the tunnel and artery project said back then, but “it’s still supposed to be accurate.’’ Hardly.
More than $22 billion later, Boston remains one of the most congested cities in America. Last year, drivers here wasted an average of 38 hours in traffic. By one measure, traffic tie-ups worsened 22 percent in just one year.
Here’s what all that head-splitting waste of fossil fuel has done for me: It has elevated Rick Simonson into my media personality pantheon once reserved for the likes of Chet and Nat, Liz Walker, and R.D. Sahl.
For the NPR-only set, Simonson is the silky smooth morning traffic reporter on WBZ. He’s appointment radio — “traffic on the 3s’’ – for those of us plotting daily drive-time strategy and can do without those nifty smartphone traffic apps.
Simonson’s morning broadcasts, from the Clear Channel offices next to the T stop at Wellington station in Medford, are an amalgam of shorthand that listeners can decipher instantly, tuning in attentively when the radio geography winds around to them.
The Braintree split to Columbia Road. The tolls to the market. The Jughandle lights in Peabody. Spot Pond. The river roads. The Leverett down ramp.
“The Garden curve,’’ said Simonson. “Now, I coined that one.’’
While Simonson chats amiably and effortlessly with the ’BZ anchors, it’s not like he’s bumping into them at the water cooler.
Inside the comfortable headquarters of the communications colossus that is Clear Channel, it turns out that there is something of a traffic-report factory running at full tilt.
As Simonson and producer Emil Geithner monitor police scanners, traffic-camera feeds on a bank of flat-screens, and traffic maps that plot triangulated cell photo data, other reporters dip in and out of tiny nearby broadcast booths.
Scott Montminy reports for his NECN traffic live shot four times an hour in a nearby corner. Rich Kirkland, who will step into the WBZ radio booth when Simonson leaves at 10 a.m., feeds his reports to Channel 7. Scott Eck is up in the ’copter.
Tell these guys the day of the week and the time of the day, and they will tell you the traffic. Just about.
Simonson, twice voted Boston’s best traffic reporter, is on a first-name basis with some of the callers who often beat law enforcement with reports of tie-ups and accidents. “They take their commute seriously.”
Simonson tries not to. He’s a cancer survivor, a grandfather, and a former anchor for WEEI in the old days. He’s also back home in Ipswich by late morning, raking leaves.
“It’s not like work,’’ he said. “The heaviest thing I have to lift are my headphones.’’
And he never fell for those 1998 ads, one of which featured a fictitious anchor asking Randy, a fictitious traffic guy, for an update.
“Traffic’s fine,’’ the traffic reporter curtly replies. “Back to you, Terry.’’
“Nothing out there at all for us today, Randy?’’ the anchorman presses.
By the time Simonson is driving north toward home on trafficless roads after a recent visit, I’m stuck in thick late-morning traffic on the lower deck of I-93.
“Accident near Purchase Street,’’ Kirkland’s voice tells me from my car radio. “Looks like a bad one.’’
Traffic’s not fine, Terry. Randy was wrong.