It’s one of the busiest intersections in Boston, infamous for its congestion, chaotic traffic patterns, and forbidding expanse of timeworn streets and crumbling concrete.
Now, with the massive new casino going up in nearby Everett expected to worsen traffic, Boston officials have unveiled a plan to remake Sullivan Square and Rutherford Avenue in Charlestown. The goal is to beautify this long ugly stretch and make it much friendlier to pedestrians, while easing drivers through its tangled turns.
Key to the project will be the elimination of the square’s central traffic circle, a busy relic of 1950s-era transportation planning.
“It’s quite dangerous. I fear for my clients,” said Carol Fernandez, owner of Boston Fit Body Boot Camp, whose clients often walk to her gym. “It’s almost like there’s a blindspot for them and for the cars.”
The task ahead for city officials is daunting: More than 100,000 vehicles pass through Sullivan Square each day, and the seven roads surrounding the circle are often clogged. Rutherford Avenue provides direct vehicle access to downtown Boston from the city’s northern neighborhoods.
Boston has divided its improvements into short-term fixes and a longer-term project. The early work, which is being paid for and managed by Wynn Resorts, should be finished in time for the opening of the company’s casino in 2019. It includes widening or rebuilding several of the major roads into the rotary, adding more traffic lights for both cars and pedestrians, and adjusting routes on smaller roads to divert more traffic around the square.
The longer-term plan would ultimately replace the traffic circle with a street grid, making it more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly and providing better access to the Sullivan Square MBTA station. The grid’s final design is not yet determined, but officials hope to install decking over the Rutherford Avenue underpass to accommodate either new development or green space.
“The roadway is going to have excellent bicycle facilities, ample open space helping to buffer the residential community from the roadway, and it is going to handle the unavoidable regional traffic that it’s going to have to handle,” said James Gillooly, deputy director of the Boston Transportation Department.
But city officials may have reopened an old wound with their May decision to keep the long Rutherford underpass that connects to Alford Street and the bridge over the Mystic River, as well as another on Rutherford Avenue under Austin Street. In 2013, then-mayor Thomas Menino unveiled a proposal to eliminate the underpasses, narrow the 10-lane Rutherford Avenue, and add bike lanes, crosswalks, and landscaping to make it more of a “neighborhood-friendly, urban boulevard,” as he said at the time.
The Walsh administration also endorsed that approach during its lengthy and sometimes bitter negotiations with Wynn and state casino regulators over the traffic fallout from the casino, which is expected to add another 10,400 cars a day to Sullivan Square.
Some of those original improvements will go forward. But keeping the underpasses is now rankling some Charlestown activists who thought the question was long settled. They say the city held too few meetings before making the decision, and they argue that the new plan favors saving drivers a few minutes of travel time at the expense of a more pedestrian-friendly corridor.
“It’s not enough of an improvement to justify just rebuilding what we have here,” said Ivey St. John, who has lived in the neighborhood for more than four decades.
But US Representative Michael Capuano said he has heard from many Charlestown residents who prefer the new design, because Rutherford Avenue improvements would keep cars off smaller residential streets.
“The current Rutherford Avenue was built to take traffic out of the neighborhoods of Charlestown,” he said. “And it worked.”
Gillooly pointed out that the city will still change much of the road to make it look less like a highway, with fewer lanes, more bike paths and crosswalks, and nearly four acres of new open space. Both underpasses will have much shorter approaches and be at a steeper grade, he said, forcing cars to pass through more cautiously.
“We’re right-sizing it, but right-sizing it requires we keep the underpasses,” Gillooly said.
The Walsh administration had originally embraced the elimination of the underpasses; during its unsuccessful attempt to block the Wynn casino, the mayor’s legal team argued in court that the casino would make the Menino road plan unworkable.
But after the fight ended with a settlement in 2016, the city revisited the plan and decided to include the underpasses to handle traffic after all.
“There’s no irony there. There’s consistency there,” Gillooly said. “Our subsequent analysis confirmed that we may not be able to have a surface plan because of entities like the casino.”
Wynn spokesman Greg John said the company had “absolutely no preference on a plan” and “will help to facilitate any final plan chosen by the city of Boston for Sullivan Square.”
The long-term project, eliminating the traffic circle and sprucing up Rutherford Avenue, will start by 2021 and be complete by 2025. Wynn is providing $25 million toward the work, and the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization, which directs federal transportation funds within the region, is also expected to distribute about $150 million for the project.
The earlier Wynn-funded work, worth $11 million, will begin this fall. That project will create new thoroughfares between surrounding roads, which should divert some cars from the rotary. A new exit at the Sullivan Square MBTA station will also allow some bus routes to bypass the busiest intersections. And Wynn will add several new traffic signals around the square, while improving crosswalks and cycling infrastructure.
Those fixes, at least, are less polarizing than the Rutherford Avenue underpasses, said Nathan Blanchet, a Charlestown resident who strongly favored eliminating the underpasses.
“That’s certainly something everyone agrees on, that it’s a dangerous disaster right now,” he said.