Over so soon?
Travel on the Massachusetts Turnpike was back to its normal pace through Boston Monday, with four lanes of traffic open in each direction. The highway, which had been reduced to three lanes since July 7 and a maximum of two lanes since July 28 during reconstruction of the Commonwealth Avenue bridge, was at full capacity weeks ahead of schedule.
It was a boon for highway commuters, whose worst commutes of the season are now in their rearview mirrors. But the project will still disrupt other travelers for another week.
The section of Commonwealth Avenue that runs above the Pike and a stretch of the Green Line’s B branch will remain closed as new tracks, sidewalks, and surfaces are installed along Comm. Ave. The Boston University Bridge, which intersects Commonwealth Avenue, also remains closed. Officials said the work is still on track to end by next Monday.
To say that drivers on the Pike were pleasantly surprised might be an understatement.
“It blew my mind. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe going into the city that I never slowed down,” said Vanessa Theoharis, who gave herself 90 minutes to drive from Waltham to Boston during the morning rush but got there in about 20 minutes.
“My perception is that a large-scale project like this, requiring so many resources, would not finish efficiently. I went into it assuming that,” she said.
Monday was always supposed to be a turning point for the bridge project, because the highway was expected to increase from two lanes each way to three through Aug. 28.
Instead, drivers were treated Monday morning to a full-capacity highway — with all four lanes in each direction open — from the Allston-Brighton interchange to the Beacon Street bridge.
Talk about managing expectations. But what gives? Why did all lanes reopen so early?
The state had planned to stay at three lanes for three more weeks as workers cleared equipment, including a 157-foot, 440-ton red crane that has towered over the Pike during lane reductions and that was supposed to quarterback the project. Prior to construction, the acting highway administrator, Jonathan Gulliver, said the crane, shipped from Kentucky on 22 truckloads, was the largest deployed for roadwork in Massachusetts.
However, officials overestimated how much they’d need the crane and how long its removal from the road would take.
MassDOT officials said the crane was not needed as much as expected because officials were able to rely more on a smaller crane positioned on Commonwealth Avenue.
Work crews “made an adjustment to the work zone on Commonwealth Avenue so that they could relocate a crane closer to the bridge, which allows us to stage a lot more materials and equipment than we had originally anticipated,” Gulliver said at a Monday press conference. “This was an on-the-fly adjustment that we made after a collaborative effort with the contractor to see what we could do to make this project go faster.”
That allowed the state and its contractor, Walsh Construction Co., to begin removing the big crane early. While officials had planned to break it down in small portions along the reduced-lane highway, workers instead disassembled it in larger sections throughout the day Sunday and took it off the road.
Amid all the construction, many commuters had apparently changed their daily routines over the past several days.
After the state warned travelers to avoid the turnpike, the number of cars traveling into Boston on Interstate 90 dropped by between 20 and 30 percent last week, compared to normal rates, Gulliver said.
Keolis Commuter Services, the company that operates the MBTA’s commuter rail system, said ridership increased by about 25 percent last week on the Worcester-Framingham Line, which runs along the Pike.
Public transit commuters will benefit from the new tracks being installed for the Green Line, which has been replaced along Comm. Ave. with chartered buses since July 26, said Steve Poftak, the MBTA’s interim general manager.
For three years, trolleys have been forced to travel at reduced speeds of 3 miles an hour between stations on either side of the bridge. Once the new track is in place, they will be allowed to travel at 10 miles per hour over the bridge and at 25 miles an hour while approaching the bridge.
On the Mass. Pike, the state will still need to periodically reduce lanes as the project wraps up, but those reductions will be short-term and come during off-peak hours, MassDOT spokesman Patrick Marvin said.
The turnpike was narrowed to three lanes on July 7 to allow workers to set up materials for the bridge project, and narrowed to two lanes in each direction — and as low as one lane during off-peak hours — the night of July 28.
Since then, parts of the bridge have been replaced with new beams and girders using accelerated construction tactics. These methods, using precast materials, severely disrupted traffic for a short period of time. The approach has transformed bridge work across the state and the country in the past decade, with projects that previously took several years using traditional methods now taking days or weeks.
Gulliver said it’s too soon to say whether the schedule change will result in reduced project costs for the state. Marvin said the contractor was not eligible for any incentives or bonuses related to reopening lanes ahead of schedule, or for any other work this summer.
Monday’s lane openings don’t mark the end of Pikeapalooza, since only the eastbound portion of the bridge is being rebuilt this summer. The $82 million project will continue next summer when the other half of the bridge undergoes similar work, so Pike commuters may want to start preparing now for those 2018 closures.
Gulliver said the state intends to learn from this summer’s work, but it’s not yet clear whether officials will be able to make the same adjustments next year to cut down on the length of the disruptions.
“There’s a lot of lessons learned that we’ve gotten from doing this stage of construction,” he said. “We may have that opportunity and are going to look at that really hard once this one dies down.”