Why last year’s Commonwealth Avenue Bridge success could spell traffic trouble this summer
Last summer, David Frischling heeded the pleas of state officials to avoid the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge construction zone at all costs, and worked from his home in Needham instead of driving to the office in Cambridge.
State officials said the only way to avoid massive tie-ups was for commuters such as Frischling to steer clear of the Massachusetts Turnpike in Boston and the streets around Commonwealth Avenue as workers replaced half of the bridge over three weeks starting in late July.
The warnings worked so well that traffic wasn’t too bad — the dreaded “Pikeocalypse” never arrived — and Frischling resumed his commute before the work was completed.
This summer, with the second phase of the bridge replacement starting Thursday night, Frischling is optimistic the commute will be manageable from the get-go.
“I am going to try the opposite this year: Assume it’s going to work, and then stay home if it doesn’t,” Frischling said.
That kind of thinking keeps state highway administrator Jonathan Gulliver up at night. On the eve of the summer’s biggest road project, his top concern is that commuters think that every other driver will stay home — and they’ll have the road to themselves.
“They’re sorely mistaken if they think that because things went well last year that their commute will be easy this year,” Gulliver said. “Our number one worry is that the success we had last year is going to lead to some complacency this year.”
The $110 million project, which will replace the bridge’s westbound lanes, will cause massive disruptions to the transportation network coming into Boston from the west.
The Mass. Pike through Boston will be at half-capacity during rush hour for about 10 days, the Boston University Bridge and a stretch of Commonwealth Avenue will be closed to vehicles for about two weeks, and the Green Line will run shuttle buses though that section of the street.
Last year, officials incessantly encouraged drivers to go on vacation, work from home, or hop on the commuter rail. And drivers responded in kind: traffic on the turnpike during rush hour was down as much as 30 percent some days, and the Framingham/Worcester commuter rail saw a 25 percent uptick in ridership on some days.
The state is trying to hammer home the same point this year. The highway department has been using blunt — if not cheeky — messages on roadside signs, social media, and frequent press events to warn motorists about the extensive disruptions.
At a news conference Tuesday, officials urged drivers at least five times within a 15-minute span to stay clear from the scene, emphasizing that following such warnings last year played a big role in limiting disruption from the construction.
“The traveling public listened to our advice, made alternate plans, and stayed away,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said.
Adie Tomer, a transportation analyst with the Brookings Institution, said public agencies across the country have embraced aggressive communication efforts to warn drivers about the worst-case scenarios of traffic disruptions. Usually, drivers appreciate the honesty, however brutal.
“Individuals can handle difficult circumstances, but they’re looking first and foremost for trust,” he said. “They want the government to trust them with information, and they want to trust the government to get it to them.”
But just because the information is out there doesn’t necessarily mean drivers will respond, Tomer added. And it’s reasonable for officials to worry that commuters won’t follow the same advice again and again, said Nancy McGuckin, a consultant in Los Angeles who specializes in commuter behavior.
“It’s a risk, because in year one, the papers all said, ‘This isn’t so bad, this is okay.’ And every individual thinks their small little change in behavior won’t make a big difference,” McGuckin said. “All you need is for 15 percent or 20 percent of drivers to think it wasn’t so great working from home. Then you have a mess.”
On the Pike, for example, 140,000 cars pass through Boston on a typical day. If that doesn’t change during lane reductions, Gulliver warned, those drivers will face gridlock that will stretch from Framingham to Logan Airport.
Some experts think the public will recall the drill from last year and adjust to it again. Adam Hurtubise, who held several high-level positions at Massachusetts transportation agencies, recalled the summer of 2011, when the state replaced 14 bridges on Route 93 over 10 weekends. By the end of the construction period, Hurtubise said, drivers were better trained to avoid the highway.
“People were more aware of the project by the last weekend than they were the first or second weekend,” he said.
With the Commonwealth Avenue project, Hurtubise predicted, “The folks who experienced year one will understand the implication for year two, and they will know why [the state] doesn’t want them on the road.”
Frischling, the commuter from Needham, acknowledged that if everyone expects traffic to be fine, it probably won’t be. And he’s prepared to work from home if the commute is as bad as the billing.
“We’re all worried it’s going to be worse this year because no one’s worried about it,” Frischling said. “Hopefully everyone else will stay home and make my life easy.”