Don’t look now, but commuters along the western ring of Route 128 can finally look forward to the end of a longtime construction project.
A 15-mile stretch between Canton and Wellesley has been under construction since 2003, adding in stages one additional travel lane in each direction. Now the final leg — a few miles between Needham and Wellesley and a new highway exit — is all but done.
“It’s the last piece of a long line,” said John McInerney, the Boston-area director for the state highway department. “The full benefit’s not really used until the last piece is complete.”
Things aren’t quite finished just yet. There is still some bridge painting and landscaping to be done. The final inspections will be done over the coming months, and the state is expected to completely close the book in spring 2019. But for drivers, the highway is now in its final configuration, a big milestone for any roadwork project.
Still, it took a while to get here.
“I’ve seen progress over the years, but it still just felt like it’s never going to finish,” said Mike Travers, 22, a Norton resident who drives the stretch a few times a month and doesn’t remember a time without some construction. “I’ve only seen this my entire life.”
Overall, the project cost about $350 million. Actually, make that projects, as the overall work was broken down into six separate jobs over the years — small stretches of highway and a few bridges at a time.
“You can only work on so much road at any one given time,” McInerney said. The state wasn’t “going to put out one massive contract for 128.”
Officials have also in the past said doing the work in stages freed up money for other highway projects.
The soon-to-be-completed stretch between Needham and Wellesley was the final and most expensive stage, at about $150 million, and included a new interchange at Exit 19 and improvements to nearby local roads. It started in 2015 and has been led by Canton-based contractor Barletta Heavy Division.
Traffic was tough over the last couple of years, said Glenn Mulno, a Needham resident, but has gotten “much better” since the work was completed. He said an exit-only lane at the new interchange has improved traffic, and the fourth highway lane has helped ease bottlenecks on parts of the journey.
The project doesn’t add much capacity on the highway. During rush hour, drivers have been allowed to use the breakdown lane for travel for decades. That is no longer the case. Still, that should make the roadway safer because the breakdown lane will now be reserved for breakdowns.
Meanwhile, traffic on this stretch of highway has grown in recent years, from about 165,000 vehicles a day in 2015 to 178,000 in 2017, according to state traffic counts. It was about 153,000 back in the early 1990s.
That’s why Greg Reibman, president of the Newton-Needham Regional Chamber, a business group, is pushing for more transit options in the area, especially to the business park right off Exit 19, which includes Trip Advisor and a big Coca-Cola facility.
Nonetheless, he said, “it’s a great relief” that the highway project is almost over.