Next Phase of Viaduct Project Will Usher in Traffic Congestion
Slowdown on I-91
At a recent public meeting about the massive, ongoing I-91 viaduct project, attendees were able to view a yellowed page from the Springfield Daily News featuring an aerial shot of the viaduct slicing through the downtown in 1970. The headline: “I-91 Linkup Provides Access to a Bright City Future.”
That was a long time ago, said Richard Masse, acting director for Mass. Department of Transportation (DOT) Region 2.
“It’s been 45 years,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re way beyond the road being reliable. We shouldn’t have to come out and patch holes, but we’ve been doing that on a regular basis.”
The original construction of Springfield’s portion of I-91, including the raised viaduct, cost just north of $50 million, while the current project — which, over the next three-plus years, will replace the viaduct deck, repair and replace the structural steel, and include other improvements — will cost $148 million, the bid submitted by Framingham-based JF White-Schiavone.
It will also be a significant inconvenience to commuters and businesses traveling to, from, and through Springfield’s downtown.
“There’s no way we can do this project on I-91 without causing some traffic congestion and delay, but we do want to provide information so people know what’s going on,” Masse said, explaining that the recent installation of cameras, sensors, and message boards along the mile-long stretch of raised highway to help motorists deal with the long-term effects of the lane and ramp closures beginning this month. Information will also be posted online for those who want to check out conditions before leaving home.
The elevated viaduct through Springfield carries about 75,000 vehicles per day. Essentially a concrete deck slab supported by steel girders — which are in turn supported by steel pier caps, column piers, and footings with pile foundations — the structure has undergone several rehabilitation projects over the past quarter-century, but nothing approaching a total deck replacement.
“The viaduct deck is in horrible condition, and we’re here to fix it, to give it life for the next 20 to 30 years,” said Ralph Romano, a MassDOT engineer, by way of explaining what the project — which stretches from the Interstate 291 interchange to around State Street — entails.
Now and Later
The first stage of the project, known as stage 1A, is coming to a close, and included pre-emptive repairs to the bridge deck to prepare the two outer lanes of I-91 to handle traffic while rehabilitation of the inner lanes is taking place.
In addition, some local roads were reconfigured to prepare for increased traffic volume due to upcoming detours, including construction of the West Columbus Avenue Extension to help improve traffic flow, and construction of a temporary off-ramp from I-91 south at Birnie Avenue (to be called exit 6-7) to carry traffic onto downtown streets.
Stage 1B, beginning this month and lasting through next fall, will see the inner lanes of I-91 north and south along the median closed for deck reconstruction. All traffic will be shifted to the right, using the shoulder and breakdown lanes. Speed limits have been reduced through the work area and will be enforced with doubled fines, Romano said.
During this phase, JF White-Schiavone will demolish and replace the deck along the median and high-speed lanes of I-91, along with the I-291 on-ramp to I-91 south and the left side of the I-291 off-ramp from I-91 north, in phases. Access to I-291 will be maintained at all times, with the possible exception of overnight closures where detours will be implemented.
The DOT has been testing ramp closures and detours over the past few months while crews performed preliminary deck work, mostly at night. The Birnie Avenue connector onto the interstate has been closed since October, and this month will see the closing of southbound exits 6 and 7, on-ramps from Union and State streets onto I-91 north, and the Route 20 connector into I-91 south.
Detours involving East and West Columbus Avenue, Hall of Fame Avenue, and other roads — details and maps are available online at www.massdot.state.ma.us/i91viaductrehab/traffic.aspx — will be well-marked, Romano said, while I-291 will be accessible through downtown using Liberty and Dwight streets.
“A lot of thought went into this,” Romano said of the traffic-management plan, “but traffic engineering is not an exact science. It relies on human behavior sometimes, so there’s only so much we can do. But we do try to respond to anything that’s not quite right, and we will be doing that throughout the project.”
Stage 2 of the project, slated for late fall 2016 through late fall 2017, won’t see any ramp reopenings, but traffic in both directions will shift to the center, newly constructed lanes, while construction shifts to the low-speed travel lanes and the shoulders, along with the I-91 northbound on-ramp to I-291 east, which will be constructed in two phases.
Additionally, the exit 9 off-ramp from I-91 north to Route 20 will be closed for the first part of stage 2. Again, access from I-91 north to I-291 east will be maintained at all times, except for possible overnight closures. By late fall 2017, commuters will have full use of I-91 in both directions. The temporary exist 6-7 will be removed, along with the West Columbus Avenue Extension.
Then the project moves to a punch-list phase, as workers paint the structural steel, install municipal street lighting where necessary, complete final paving and traffic markings on local streets, and restore all disturbed areas. By the time the contract ends in February 2019, the completed viaduct will feature slightly wider shoulders, new lighting, and stormwater improvements to help protect local water quality.
Throughout the project, the contractors are responsible for controlling construction-related dust emissions, using a combination of sprinklers and sprayers, wind screens, and wind barriers will also be used to control the spread of dust between sidewalks and the work zone.
Bracing for Impact
For most Springfield workers and commuters, though, dust is far down the list of concerns. Traffic is typically at the top.
Taylor Rock, a worksite outreach coordinator with MassRides, was on hand at the public meeting to encourage the public to carpool, either on their own or with the help of a ‘matching program’ they can access online through her agency. MassRides also provides emergency rides home for people whose carpool partners have to leave work early.
Rock cited a study noting that 96% of people driving to work downtown do so alone. Meanwhile, 40% of them have access to flexible work hours. By carpooling and avoiding using the highway during peak rush hours, she said, motorists can make a dent in the traffic hassles that are bound to come.
“We’re not telling people to take their cars off the road, but just look at some alternate ways of traveling,” she said. “You may be able to counter some of the effects of the traffic congestion that will come with this project.”
“There will be only one lane open in each direction, and during peak commuting hours, early morning and late afternoon, these lanes will be pushed to their capacity, so the more vehicles we can get off that path by carpooling, vanpooling, and shifting work hours, the better,” he said. “The more people that take advantage of those solutions, the more we can help the situation up on the highway.”
A second ‘bright future’ for I-91 in Springfield, to quote that old newspaper headline, may seem far away once traffic slows to a crawl. But, as Masse noted, the days of patching are over as a more permanent fix begins.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]