From the Morrissey re-design mailbag: ‘Let’s get this going!’

Tidal flooding opened up new parts of the neighborhood for a swan to explore near Savin Hill on Sunday. The same overflow caused massive traffic problems as Morrissey Boulevard was repeatedly closed over a five-day period— prompting new questions about how officials should deal with the persistent problem. Peter K. McNamara photo

The lane reduction remains key concern

Feedback from about 30 respondents to the latest public comment period – it ended last December – on the Morrissey Boulevard redesign project largely echoed those in the first comment period last July.

There were concerns that the lane reduction in the revamp plan will mean gridlock at critical times; some cited cyclist safety as a priority, while one dissenting commenter asked why all the worry about cyclist safety and space when cycling on the roadway is minimal for weeks at a time in winter; others cited, among other things, concerns about pedestrian safety, the too-narrow shoulders laid out for the rehab effort, and upkeep of the new landscape after the project is finished.

The state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) hopes to transform the boulevard into a urban parkway from just below Kosciuszko Circle on the northern end to Neponset at the southern tip, eliminating a lane to add protected bike and pedestrian lanes and greenery, and shoring up the road against increasing incidents of flooding.

DCR’s vision involves a complete renovation of the boulevard at a cost of more than $40 million, funding that has not yet been fully committed to by state budget planners. But DCR did have $3.2 million to begin the work, including the planning and design phase, which has been ongoing for the last two years.

The main goals of the Morrissey project, according to the agency, are to “provide more effective drainage and flood control; increase safety for all users; restore the historic character of the Parkway through implementation of landscape and urban design elements; improve accommodations for cyclists and pedestrians; improve access to abutting DCR parks and recreational properties; and maintain sufficient capacity for regional traffic.”

Another important purpose of the redesign is ending the flooding that regularly closes lanes on both sides of on the boulevard – last week’s storm damage and tidal events are the latest examples — by improving drainage and mitigating flood risks. DCR is also proposing dropping the speed limit on key stretches from 40 miles per hour to 35 miles per hour.

This most recent round of comment was set off last September after Mayor Martin Walsh— in comments to the Dorchester Reporter— expressed reservations about the project’s envisioned “lane-drop” provision and other design elements. Walsh said he wanted more outreach to established Dorchester civic associations before the design plan was solidified. “I have real concerns about three lanes down to two,” Walsh told the Reporter.

State engineers say fixes to the signaling and lane configuration should ease traffic pressures, but “it’s not a signaling problem; it’s a problem of congestion and confusion,” Walsh said.

The DCR responded to the mayor’s concerns by meeting with various neighborhood and civic associations last fall where they presented detailed briefings on the initial design. It then re-opened a new comment period to solicit written opinions from the public. Of the 30 or so comments submitted, many expressed support for the plan.

Mike Blackwell of Milton voiced his support of the benefits the redesign would have for bicyclists: “Morrissey Blvd is a vital link between South Shore communities and Boston, and would be the preferred route for cyclists if it was safer,” he wrote. “Currently the shoulder is much too narrow (especially north-bound) and traffic too fast for safe cycling. A separated bike lane would be a tremendous improvement and encourage an increase in cycling, which in turn could lead to a decrease in auto traffic.”

Meg Campbell of Savin Hill echoed these sentiments, writing, “Pedestrians, cyclists, and residents deserve a Morrissey Boulevard that is green, beautiful, and cyclist and pedestrian friendly for everyone.”

However, other residents said they were concerned about negative effects on traffic.

Don Walsh of Savin Hill wrote, “Reducing vehicle lanes makes no sense to me. I simply don’t believe that improved signalization will work. More gridlock will ensue,” he warned.

Tim Joyce of Crescent Avenue questioned the prioritization of a bike path over vehicular lanes: “Why do we all have to sit in traffic so we can look at a bike path that not many people use four months out of the year?”

For her part, Marta Carney of Savin Hill wrote to say that she is “excited about the new plans for the redesign,” adding: A lot of neighbors want to bike safely in to Boston.” She added: “Also the turn-around at the Savin yacht club would be great.”

Another Savin Hill neighbor – Andrea Wirth – was enthusiastic. “I love your designs for the improvement of Morrissey Blvd. Let’s get this going!”
Bill Walczak, a mayoral candidate in 2013 and a longtime Savin Hill leader, added his support for the project in an e-mail. “The extensive research into both why traffic backs up and how to solve it is convincing. With changes in the way traffic is moved along the boulevard, we can get a more efficient thoroughfare and get a nice amenity to our community at the same time.”

Lee Toma, a Milton resident who has been a leading activist for expanding the Neponset Greenway in Boston and Milton, supports the plan, noting that he has been “caught in floods there during rainstorms and high tides.” He also cited a number of obstacles that face both cyclists and pedestrians along the boulevard that pose a hazard to safe passage, including “narrow spots at the drawbridge gates, to uneven surfaces.”

With the latest comment period closed, the DCR says it “is exploring requests for short-term improvements along the parkway, which may include light signal adjustments and access improvements (i.e. crosswalks),” according to Troy Wall, the agency’s director of communications. He added that there are plans to host a follow-up public meeting “in the coming months.”

State Rep. Nick Collins, who is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination to be the next state senator representing Dorchester and South Boston, said this week that the last several days have served to remind everyone of the urgency of dealing with the Morrissey corridor. The roadway was closed repeatedly over the last week as the storm and high tide events swamped large sections of roadway, particularly between UMass and Freeport Street. The residual effects of the closures caused gridlock on neighborhood roads, particularly at Kosciuszko Circle.

In a phone conversation with the Reporter while he was stuck in Morrissey Boulevard traffic on Monday afternoon, Collins said, “This storm really highlights the importance of Morrissey Boulevard to the transportation network in Dorchester and throughout neighboring communities. So it’s important that we get this done soon and get this done right.”

Reporter news editor Jennifer Smith contributed to this report.