On weekdays, the billboard-festooned 2.4-mile stretch of US Route 1 in Saugus and Revere can be a dangerous bottleneck that snarls traffic for miles in both directions.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Tom Ahrens, 54, of Middleton, who said he spends about two hours each way commuting in rush-hour traffic to his marketing job in Boston. “I’ve tried different routes but there’s no other way to get to my office.”
The story is much the same for Eric Crossman, a computer programmer who regularly travels the section of Route 1 that narrows from three to two lanes each way between the Route 99 junction in Saugus and Copeland Circle in Revere.
“I don’t want to think about how many hours of my life I’ve wasted sitting in my car in traffic,” said the 46-year-old Salem man. “They need to fix that road.”
To ease the congestion, state transportation officials have proposed widening that stretch of highway from two to three lanes in each direction and other upgrades. But the project, with a price tag once estimated at nearly $137 million, has languished for years amid the recession, chronic state budget cuts, and dwindling federal highway dollars.
Now, several communities along the congested stretch of Route 1 are making a renewed push to get the stalled roadway project back on track.
In a recent letter to state transportation officials, Revere Mayor Dan Rizzo, Malden Mayor Gary Christenson, and Saugus Town Manager Scott Crabtree called on the state to add the improvements — along with a connector road from Route 1A in Revere to Route 16 west — to the agency’s long-term transportation plans.
“This project has great significance for virtually every community from Chelsea to the New Hampshire border,” the officials wrote.
They argue that traffic gridlock along Route 1 is not only a public safety and air-quality issue but an economic one, and fixing it should be a top priority.
“These horrific traffic jams extend for three hours each morning and again each afternoon and evening on every single day of the work week,” the officials wrote. “This is an incredible waste of time, fuel, and productivity for every commuter unfortunate to be stuck there and is a major disincentive to job-creating development that might otherwise occur along that corridor and nearby.”
A report by the environmental consulting firm CDM Smith, which is handling the engineering on the project for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the Route 1 upgrades “should be considered a high-priority project.”
“Given the regional significance of the Route 1 project, it is critical that action be taken quickly,” the 2012 report stated. “The completion of the project will encourage and support continued economic development along the corridor from Logan Airport to points north.”
The report pointed out that the Route 1/Route 60 junction at Copeland Circle has been ranked as the second-highest crash location in the state, followed by the Salem Street/Lynn Street access ramps on Route 1 in Malden and Revere.
Despite that, funding for the project has been elusive.
In June, the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization, which is made up of nearly two dozen towns and cities and acts as a conduit for federal highway money, released its list of funding priorities for the next four years.
The $296.8 million list of projects includes some $43 million for adding a new lane to Route 128 between the Needham and Wellesley exits and $20 million for improvements to the Middlesex Turnpike from Bedford to Burlington. Funds were also earmarked for replacing dozens of bridges and converting old railroad tracks to rail trails.
In addition, the planning organization earmarked a large chunk of its funding in the next four years for public mass transit projects, including new trains, buses, and equipment upgrades and the MBTA’s $1.3 billion Green Line extension.
But the Route 1 project wasn’t identified as a priority by the organization, meaning it won’t be eligible for funding until 2018 or beyond.
In fact, state transportation officials don’t expect the Route 1 upgrades to be included on the list of priority projects until at least 2031, short of state funding becoming available for the project.
“That would require a major shift in priorities for the MPO, which has identified the time frame of 2031-2035 as most likely for implementation,” said Sara Lavoie, a tranposrtation department spokeswoman.
Lavoie said the planning organization is required to conduct annual reviews of its funding priorities — a process that gets underway in the next few months — but said other transportation projects have already been given priority over the Route 1 upgrades.
State lawmakers tucked $10 million into the 2012 state budget to be used for the design and permitting of the Route 1 project. But those funds haven’t been used.
Malden City Council president Neal Anderson said he supports the renewed push for the project, and he called on state and federal lawmakers to help secure transportation funding to get it going. He said towns and cities must stick together and keep the pressure on the federal government.
“What we need is for Washington to get its act together and fund these projects,” said Anderson, who represents the city’s Ward 7. “They are desperately needed.”