Impassioned Jamaica Plain residents turned out to speak their minds at the first open house and public forum on the Casey Overpass Project, held Wednesday at the Agassiz Community Center.
Focused on “Planning and Concept Design Study,” the forum featured several representatives from the Massachusetts Departments of Transportation and specialists working on the project team.
Prior to the meeting, an open house was held in the community center, where large, three-foot by five-foot posters lined the walls illustrating the work MassDOT and other researchers have done into the overpass and surrounding area. The posters featured information on local and regional traffic patterns, existing conditions of the bridge and a timeline of its history; and one asked viewers to “Imagine the Possibilities” with an illustrated graphic of the area sans overpass.
Over 100 Jamaica Plain residents eventually took their seats in the small auditorium. “All the usual suspects and then some,” one attendee noted as he settled in.
For a little over an hour, MassDOT presented their schedule timeline for the project, the partners involved in decision-making, some history on the Casey Overpass and the extensive research they have been culling on the vehicle, bicycle and pedestrian traffic on the bridge and surface roads beneath.
Members of the Working Advisory Group were also presented, causing some audience members to demand why their neighborhood associations from Forest Hills, Hyde Park, Roslindale and others were not represented.
Dennis Baker, the leading bridge engineer on the project, emphasized that despite the structural deficiencies, the bridge is currently safe to drive on. “A lot of problems can be traced back to the original design,” he explained. “Again, the bridge is safe but it is at the end of its usable life.”
Andrea D’Amato enthusiastically presented the bulk of the information, appealing to the Jamaica Plain residents in the audience. “This is your plan, this is your neighborhood,” D’Amato said.
Although there were no substantial examples of future roadway or overpass workups given, the presentation suggested that the area would be a “blank slate” and that there were many possibilities. Project Manager Paul King stated they hoped to have rudimentary sketches by the next public forum on May 18.
The forum was then turned over to questions and comments from the audience, with D’Amato encouraging, “Our minds our open, our ears are open and we really do look forward to working with you all on this project.”
Many of the audience remarks focused on ensuring that the community would be well enough represented and informed throughout the process. Some expressed disappointment that the only information being given was still from the data collection phase, and many inquired when real projections of the impact of different solutions would be presented. A few ardently spoke on behalf of the Arborway Yard. “Do not touch one single foot of the Arborway space," said one resident who did not give his name. “Frankly, I do not see the Department of Transportation respecting this community.”
But it was Bernard Doherty, resident and a member of the Working Advisory Group, who asked the question addressing what was critically missing from the presentation. “What I want to know, is how much money has been allocated to this particular project?” he asked.
After some back-and-forth, Project Manager Steve McLaughlin explained that the Accelerated Bridge Program was a $3 billion program looking to fix hundreds of bridges statewide. The project is funded through September 2016.
Following up, Doherty questioned how much of that $3 billion would actually be allocated to the Casey project, and whether MassDOT had worked up cost estimates for the various solutions they were considering.
“To just replace the bridge now would be $70 million,” McLaughlin said. “Another at-grade solution would be another number. Another solution would be different.” The amount of the total Accelerated Bridge Program budget to be given to the Casey Overpass was not said.
Several residents appeared concerned over the lack of communication regarding funding. “I don’t want to see a bridge come down and then the project run out of money, and us be stuck,” said one speaker.
Michael Halle, who sits on the Working Advisory Group, tried to remind the room what was at stake.
“I’m sure two years is a short time to tear down and rebuild a bridge, but for the people who live here, it’s their lives,” he said to MassDOT officials, before turning to address the audience. He encouraged compromise and working together to remain on track, adding, “If the process gets dawdled, I guess the default is we build another Casey. Can we do better than that? I think we can.”
Minutes from this meeting should be posted on the Casey Overpass Project site when they become available. The next public forum will be May 18, in the Agassiz Community Center. Working Advisory Group meetings will be held prior to that.