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No Traffic Difference Between Forest Hills Plans, Officials Say

State officials said, somewhat to their surprise, that traffic flow was equal under the two remaining proposals for life after the Casey Overpass is torn down: rebuild a two-lane bridge or keep everything at ground level.

On Monday, transportation officials said traffic is not appreciably different under the two scenarios for Forest Hills in the post-Casey Overpass era.

Pressed by the audience for how that could possibly be true, engineers said the new traffic flow under the "at-grade" plan would stop cars less often because of the U-turns that will replace left turns through the intersections at South/Arborway/New Washington and Hyde Park Avenue/New Washington.

Still, the at-grade solution adds 30 to 90 seconds to the ride from Murray Circle to Shea Circle, officials said.

There is a major cost difference between the plans:

  • Bridge: $72.7 million
  • At-grade: $52.4 million

According to the Gazette, groups supporting the at-grade solution plan to meet Dec. 6 at 6 p.m. at the State Labs, 305 South St. The state has asked the interest groups in the Working Advisory Group to submit a final list of pros and cons to both plans.

Of those present in the overflowing State Labs auditorium Monday, 15 of those who asked questions or made comments clearly supported the at-grade plan. Eleven people's questions or comments clearly showed they support a bridge. Others who spoke could not be clearly put into one camp or the other.

The state is accepting email comments on which option people prefer, though time is running out. Email john.romano@state.ma.us.

Visit the JP Patch Casey Overpass topic page for full coverage of this important neighborhood issue.

[Editor's note: The attached draft maps are easier to read and study if you download them yourself at the document center of the state's Casey Overpass Web site. The site also has a wealth of materials about the project.]

David Hannon November 22, 2011 at 09:10 PM
Chris, The number of people speaking for or against either solution at last night's meeting is a moot point. It is simply an indicator of how organized supporters/detractors are at getting people to show up. This decision is not up for a vote. There has been a long and rather involved process whose main goal was to seek the best solution for the Forest Hills neighborhood, Jamaica Plain, and regional communities that use the overpass. We were told not to consider budget when coming up with alternatives. That they are using cost as a determining factor at this point is disingenuous at best. I know that the Patch likes controversy, but this is one topic that needs to be discussed rationally and not hysterically.
James LaFond-Lewis November 22, 2011 at 10:22 PM
Hi David, I know you have been involved in this process and favor the bridge plan, but aside from that can you tell those of us who weren't involved if there was a way established to discuss and quantify aesthetic differences between the plans? Thanks
David Hannon November 22, 2011 at 10:55 PM
I think you are referring to the "livability" index, which is based upon the "Measures of Evaluation" through which every element of these alternatives has been measured. These measures were designed and refined by the DOT with the help of the Working Advisory Group. Some now feel that the consideration of alternatives through the MOEs has been skewed to favor the at-grade solution. It also has been revealed that the traffic counts used by the DOT to evalute traffic flow are considerably lower than previous counts done during the Arborway Yard CPCAY process. The "design aesthetics" will take place during the next stage of the process: the 25% design stage. The aesthetics of the DOT's illustrations of what a bridge might look like are dismal and off-putting. The illustrations of the at-grade solution are far more inviting, although it leaves out the copious number of automobiles that we'll see with that alternative. Bridge supporters are calling for an aesthetically pleasing overpass that provides a sense of place, a landmark, and a gate to the city. Remember: new overpass is shorter, lower, and about half as wide as the current overpass.
James LaFond-Lewis November 22, 2011 at 11:16 PM
I can think of two nearby aesthetically pleasing overpasses, although I don't know their names, specifically the Riverway Jamaicaway bridge that crosses Huntington Ave and the railroad bridge that crosses Hyde Park Ave in Readville. One of their defining features is the stone used in the construction as well as the arched designs. Like many people I am skeptical that a modern bridge on a modern budget can rise to that kind of architectural beauty. What do you think? Also, judging by your comments here, and previously, it seems that you believe the process has been increasingly biased by its planners toward the at-grade option because of the higher price tag of a bridge in spite of a bridge being a better traffic solution. Is that a fair assessment?
Maura November 23, 2011 at 02:17 AM
I cannot accept that there's no appreciable difference between the two solutions. I just don't trust it.
Janell Fiarman November 23, 2011 at 03:13 AM
James, the Riverway/Jamaicaway bridge that crosses Huntington Ave may be attractive to see from a distance, but it has two of the negative features of the Casey Overpass: it marks a distinct separation between the communities on either side of it, rather than connecting them, and if you had ever stood under it waiting for the 66 bus you would know it can be a creepy place -- you know, the shadowy underside, etc. 'Tis the season to be thankful, and I am grateful to the DOT and the WAG for sifting through the issues and alternatives. While either of the two alternatives under consideration would be an improvement over the present traffic patterns, I hope we can avoid another overpass.
Michael Halle November 23, 2011 at 03:46 AM
I'm also a member of the working advisory group. I'd like to follow up on some of the issues David raised. He's been a great contributor in the Casey advisory group meetings. I ultimately hope that many of us can come to see the final solution as something we can live with, even if it isn't the plan we prefer. I've had a very open mind about both the bridge and the surface plans, and I don't see either as an ideal solution or as a horrible solution. The fact is, there are lots of cars driving through and to the area, and neither plan will change that. Both plans handle the traffic about equally: one by keeping lanes in the air, the other by providing more through lanes on the surface. The capacity we're designing for is needed for about five hours a day, at times when the Arborway itself is likely to be a major constraint on traffic. I see the surface option as having a better ability to be tuned to the needs of through and local traffic, specifically because it isn't dedicating on-bridge lanes to through traffic that doesn't need it much of the day. Traffic counts: multiple traffic counts in the area have been within about 15% of the current counts. One outlier from 2004 (I think) measured 50% higher, but there's no documentation of the raw numbers. Neither plan would stand up well to the +50% traffic, and overbuilding would just bring more traffic to the neighborhood. Both plans are designed for growth and development through 2035. More points follow.
Michael Halle November 23, 2011 at 04:22 AM
Continuing from my last comment.... David is right that we were encouraged not to consider price as an issue during the discussions. I think that was the correct approach: if we could find consensus on a plan that happened to be somewhat more expensive, the advantages should outweigh the extra costs. But that doesn't mean that costs shouldn't be a factor in the decision. Money saved here will be redirected toward fixing other bridges in the state. That's important. Every public project needs to consider costs. But let's look at those costs. The bridge solution is about $15 million more costly than the at-grade plan. The at-grade plan price even includes additional improvements along Washington Street next to the T station and in the busway, improvements that help bring the at-grade plan's performance on par with the bridge option. Making those same improvements to the bridge option would cost another $10 million. I would favor a more visually pleasing bridge structure as well, but any extra money spent on a less utilitarian design will only increase the cost difference between the two plans. Considering cost earlier would not have changed this fundamental. I agree that the renditions are not accurate. I do see the wider at-grade road as a negative for pedestrians, just as a bridge is a minus. People will adjust to either. I just don't see how those issues add up to $15 million or more extra for a bridge with approximately the same traffic capacity.
Ken Pope November 23, 2011 at 12:53 PM
I'd like to know if the potential increases in local population due to the Forest Hills Initiative have been included in these numbers. If that entire swath of land across the street from the Dunkin Donuts gets developed, along with all the parking lots (Fitzgerald, and T) there will be an enormous increase in traffic. Other things: - what about the increase in noise? All those cars which are currently sending their decibels and fumes above us will now be at ground level.... Also - given the huge number of Jaywalkers already at FH - how will this impact traffic flow at street level?
James LaFond-Lewis November 23, 2011 at 12:58 PM
Good point, Janell, the separation of neighborhoods there is stark.
Michael Halle November 23, 2011 at 02:26 PM
Good questions. All development and land use policies in Forest Hills and regionally have been included in the traffic modeling, up through 2035. There was a case early in the process where the numbers were wrong for the Forest Hills development, but those were caught by WAG members involved in the Forest Hills planning process. These errors were corrected by the team. It's fair to wonder if the numbers are good estimates. I guess my take is that no one is omniscient, but the Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS) has access to more information about development than any other entity. We need some estimate to work from, and I wouldn't know who else to trust more. But if the estimates prove to be somewhat off, it still doesn't favor one plan over the other. Both plans are affected. The vehicle handling capacity is approximately the same. Noise and pollution: first, there will be the same number of cars on the road, spending about the same amount of time in the intersection. There wil be tradeoffs. At-grade traffic makes noise near people. Bridges with higher speed traffic during parts of the day, textured surfaces, and expansion joints also make noise. Same is true for pollution: exhaust off a bridge still goes somewhere, but surface roads have auto exhaust near people. Neither plan makes cars at Forest Hills disappear. Jaywalking: legal pedestrian crossings of New Washington for both plans are much better. Neither has a mid-block crossing, though.
Kevin Wolfson November 23, 2011 at 03:24 PM
I'm also on the WAG. I'd like to comment on the question of livability: is livability better with a bridge that takes cars off the ground, or with an at-grade solution with cars on the ground? I think that's the key question now. The urban design consultants have said recently that they feel the at-grade option is better for livability. History supports that opinion. We've seen many examples of overpass removals around the world. None of those examples are exactly like Forest Hills, but they are still relevant. In almost all cases, the traffic formerly carried by a bridge is now carried on surface streets with additional car lanes. In all cases, despite the addition of significant car traffic to surface streets, neighborhoods, local businesses, and livability were better off after the overpasses were removed. Don Kindsvatter also described the shift in focus that comes with overpass removal. A big object like a bridge draws attention. Without that object (even with more cars on the surface), attention is drawn to the edges of an area, especially if there are attractive elements on the edges. This area is surrounded by world-class parks, vibrant neighborhoods, beautiful buildings including the T station and the courthouse, and local businesses. Even if we can design a beautiful new bridge, that bridge will draw attention away from the area's edges and define the area. I think the incredible features that surround Forest Hills should define the area, not a bridge.
Chris Helms (Editor) November 23, 2011 at 03:37 PM
I just want to thank my neighbors on this thread: This discussion has been a model of what I'd like to see on JP Patch -- informed people, using their real names, having real discussions about important neighborhood issues. Thanks, everyone.
Sarah Lydon November 23, 2011 at 04:04 PM
Agreed! Very well-said.
David Hannon November 23, 2011 at 04:06 PM
Jerry, I particularly liked your suggestion at the meeting that our electeds sit down face to face with the DOT and ask detailed questions with follow up questions that get to the bottom of the many issues plaguing this process. Let's remember: This is not a popularity contest, nor is the solution up for a vote. We need the solution that is best for the communities affected, both locally and at large.
James LaFond-Lewis November 23, 2011 at 05:32 PM
It seems to me that in many ways the choice comes down to two competing priorities that are valued by everyone. We are offered a bridge that prioritizes traffic flow versus an at-grade design that prioritizes aesthetics. Both solutions make a nod at the other priority, but neither fully satisfies. I think it's too bad that this doesn't come down to some kind of a vote. Having our elected officials hear detailed arguments, get the pulse of the communities and then weigh in is the next best thing.
David Hannon November 23, 2011 at 06:35 PM
This needn't be an adversarial choice. Both alternatives offer benefits, in terms of liveability and mobility. For those that would like to reconnect the parks, the bridge alternative offers a larger foot print to do so. For those that want safer and easier crossings for pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles, the bridge alternative offers less lanes and asphalt expanse to cross at intersections. For those that want increased access to Forest Hills shops, restaurants and amenities, the bridge alternative offers easier access to Hyde Park Av, South St, and Washington street businesses (bridge allows left turns off New Washington, and no convoluted "bowtie" u-turns needed). For those that dont want another Casey Overpass built, don't worry. A new bridge will be lower, shorter, and roughly half as wide. If well designed, the new bridge could be beautiful and inspiring- think Zakim downtown.
Ken Pope November 23, 2011 at 06:48 PM
I want to remind those who have so much faith in the traffic estimates, that when the Forest Hills Initiative was in it's planning stages, they figured on fewer than 1 extra vehicle per extra units of housing built (and there are currently hundreds and hundreds of units which can be built according to the FHII). To me, that seemed like wishful thinking at best. I don't know what the car ownership rate is in FH, but I'm certain it's higher than 1/housing unit... So, again, I'm curious what numbers were used here? Wishful thinking ones? or ones truly based on current percentages of vehicle ownship in the area.
Kevin Wolfson November 23, 2011 at 07:01 PM
Good points, David. However, I think access and park connections need to be defined both in terms of physical access (can cars turn left at all intersections, how many lanes does a pedestrian have to cross, etc) and visual access. For example, can a person standing at the Forest Hills gate of the Arboretum see the Southwest Corridor? Can a person standing at the Southwest Corridor see the shops on Hyde Park Ave? Can regional commuters driving through the area see any of the businesses at ground-level as they drive past? The at-grade alternative has clear advantages in visual access, and I think visual access is key to livability. If you can see a park or a restaurant, you're more likely to feel invited to visit. Sure maybe you have to cross more lanes to get there, or drive an extra minute, but I still think the visual access that comes with the at-grade option outweighs the slightly quicker physical access offered by the bridge.
Chris Helms (Editor) November 23, 2011 at 07:45 PM
From Sarah Freeman, who had tech problems (2 of 2): "* Cost: A bridge is so much more expensive. * Other improvements only possible if no bridge: Bike path on Washington St, by T station, ped access from SW Corridor Park to T without crossing street. * Shadows: Space under overpass tends to be dark, dreary & wet. Not a pleasant public space. * Noise: High speed traffic on overpass is noisier, plus echo chamber effect. * Graffiti, broken glass, trash: Casey has them. No reason to expect otherwise for new bridge. * Anti-social activities, especially at night: Space underneath can attract late night drug deals, alcohol, homeless encampments etc. All important social issues - do we want to attract them here? This is a HUGE opportunity, don't miss it!"
Chris Helms (Editor) November 23, 2011 at 07:46 PM
From Sarah Freeman, who had tech problems (1 of 2): "Initially I tried to be neutral, but as the process evolved it became more clear that IF traffic can be handled at-grade, that seems far better for Forest Hills & Emerald Necklace parks. Some reasons: * Removal of a massive structure that dominates the area & prevents it from feeling like an urban neighborhood: A smaller overpass will still define Forest Hills because it goes over 2 intersections. * Traffic calming: At Arborway Hillside/end of Casey, across from Arboretum you feel speed of traffic coming off Casey. It contributes to climate of speeding & aggressive driving: "we want to move cars as fast as possible"! only to sit thru multiple cycles of next light. Our choice: ELEVATED HIGHWAY vs. URBAN BOULEVARD LINED WITH TREES?
Michael Halle November 24, 2011 at 04:39 AM
I interpreted the answer to your question about the Arborway U-turns as saying that turning radii are typically shown first at 25%, not that the analysis hasn't been done or that they want to hide it. Both plans have scores of such details (e.g., "how big to the columns of the bridge have to be to support the structure?"). I wouldn't expect a public in-depth analysis of those details at this point either; that doesn't mean I doubt that the team has the expertise to propose a functional plan. That said, should there be an issue, there is flexibility in U-turn location. Also, any vehicle that for whatever reason couldn't make the turn could use Ukraine Way. Since commercial vehicles are excluded from using the Arborway, only the routes to and from Roslindale would be affected by the U turn (by my review of the plans, at least). Buses would need to make the U turn frequently, but they have a smaller turning radius and could potentially be treated specially for left turns. There's also the broader question, though. If you don't trust the "breezy assurances" of MassDOT about the at-grade option, how do you know you can trust the bridge design either? It's a significant change from the current conditions after all. Can you trust you don't need three or four lanes on the bridge? Or more turn lanes? With hard funding deadlines driving this essential project, decisions might be required before everyone is fully comfortable with them, unfortunately.
Michael Halle November 24, 2011 at 04:48 AM
Ken, the memo on current conditions and traffic estimates can be found here: http://app1.massdot.state.ma.us/CaseyOverpass/downloads/Casey_Traffic1_092211.pdf Discussion of local parcels starts around page 9.
Pete Stidman December 01, 2011 at 06:10 PM
I would like to comment on the idea expressed by a couple of people above that this process was somehow flawed or did not allow time for questions. This last public meeting was in fact the 6th public meeting and there were 12 WAG meetings—many of which I personally attended. Relatively speaking, this is probably the largest number of meetings I've seen on any project in Jamaica Plain and perhaps the city—the only rival I can think of being the redesign of an entire neighborhood in Columbia Point that ended up being moot after some property sales. Every meeting's minutes and presentation and supporting documents have been posted at http://app1.massdot.state.ma.us/CaseyOverpass/ for everyone to see, and the consultant team has faithfully answered everyone's questions, including all of the commenters above. Frankly I think questioning the process, which has been excellent, is a non-starter. We've had an excellent and balanced discussion with rich sources of information. The community has weighed in and that "popularity contest" (a.k.a. democracy) should be counted as well. I look forward to working with everyone to craft whichever solution is chosen by MassDOT into one that works best for the greatest number of users possible.
Stuart Horner December 02, 2011 at 04:11 PM
Does anyone have a timeline for this project? Bid dates etc? Thank you
Chris Helms (Editor) December 02, 2011 at 04:26 PM
Hi Stuart, there was a very general slide at the last meeting about years and design phases, but I don't recall anything as specific as a bid date. Can't find a link to that slide, but maybe others on the thread can help.


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