Express toll lanes proposed for a 17-mile section of Route 3 south of Boston are on hiatus, but may soon be back on the table, according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
The toll lanes and other infrastructure projects aimed at easing commuters’ daily crawl will be evaluated against a fresh set of criteria that weighs things like demand for a project and the needs it meets. The change comes as part of a revamping of the way the department establishes its capital plan, agency spokesman Michael Verseckes said in an interview last week.
The express lanes are one of three main concepts under study as potential public-private partnerships, along with Project SPAN -- a third crossing of the Cape Cod Canal -- and construction of small service plazas at undeveloped highway rest stops and park-and-rides.
The Department of Transportation is still trying to refine the Project SPAN idea. It has been called a “twin” to the Sagamore Bridge, but the final concept could be any new Cape crossing, according to Dana Levenson, who until recently was chief financial officer for the department.
For the rest-stop project, the state owns the properties and would lease them to a concessionaire who would build the plazas, Levenson said in an interview over the summer. They would have bathrooms and tourism information. They might also have something similar to the food available on the Massachusetts Turnpike, but that remains undecided, he said.
As late as July, Levenson said DOT was working on the Route 3 idea, called Project Mobility, with “the same intensity” as the others, which the state’s Public-Private Partnership Oversight Commission had asked it to pursue.
As the proposal stands today, the lanes would be built in the median, and run from approximately the Norwell-Marshfield line, just north of Exit 12, to the Braintree split, and continue on Interstate 93/Route 128 past Exit 6, near the Quincy-Braintree line.
Prices would go up and down in real time, to control demand and to keep express-lane traffic at a minimum of 45 miles per hour. The system has drawn criticism from some, because drivers more able or willing to pay could have a faster commute.
As with the rest-stop plazas, a private party would build and operate the lanes; the intent is for tolls to cover financing and maintenance.
When could they open? That’s “a very difficult thing to say right now,” Levenson said. But they are certainly years away.
Environmental review of a project typically lasts three years, after which the state would begin the public procurement process to select a partner, according to Verseckes.
Even if no public construction funds are needed – that is, if the lanes pay for themselves with tolling – the project would have to get into the Long-Range Transportation Plan, which is written by the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization.
The organization, of which DOT is an influential member, finalized the latest 25-year plan on July 30, sans express lanes, but it updates the plan every four years and can amend it in the interim.
Karl Quackenbush, executive director, said that when DOT comes to the organization with a project that does not need its federal dollars, the board is likely approve, because it has “everything to gain and nothing to lose.”
Yet Eric Bourassa, transportation director for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, told the Globe the Route 3 idea appears to be “sort of in a holding pattern.” He represents the council on the Metropolitan Planning Organization board.
“The financial analysis showed that it would need some amount of state dollars to build it,” and he believes the Department of Transportation thought the concept “wasn’t fully baked,” he said.
Outstanding questions include whether the tolls would really cover the cost.
“Back-of-the-envelope numbers say they would,” said Levenson. Traffic and revenue studies have been commissioned. They are expected to spell out exactly where drivers would enter and exit the lanes, and how many bridges would need to be reconstructed.
“These are things we need to be very transparent about,” he said.
Bourassa said the state might have to spend millions to do enough environmental work to answer public questions.
“I think that’s something that’s being weighed internally at Mass DOT right now,” he said in July.
If the lanes ever get the go-ahead, construction would probably take two or three years, Levenson said.
Talk of widening Route 3 with toll lanes started in 2012, with an unsolicited proposal from a former Massachusetts deputy transportation secretary, Ned Corcoran, and unidentified partners. Corcoran was a prime mover behind the widening of US Route 3 north of Boston a decade ago, under a different public-private arrangement that involved special legislation and a not-for-profit corporation.
In an interview in July, Corcoran said that his group was still interested, but that DOT has made it clear to him his comments are no longer welcome in public meetings, because he is creating an opportunity for a big dispute if he is perceived as “having a leg up” on the competition.
“I was told that I was not going to speak again,” he said.