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Working group meets to discuss long-term future of I-91

Date: 11/13/2014

SPRINGFIELD – The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) recently hosted its first meeting of the working group it created to assess long-term solutions for the Interstate 91 (I-91) viaduct and one local official has some concerns he hopes are addressed before the next meeting tentatively slated for December.

City Councilor Melvin Edwards said among his takeaways from the initial gathering of the study group was the fact that some key players, namely rail line representatives, the Army Corps of Engineers and utility companies, were not present to lend their expertise to the discussion into the fate of the I-91 corridor.

“Regardless of whether you level the highway or put it underground, some of the players aren’t at the table,” he said. “The cement mortar that creates the highway, that’s the part that can be controlled by expenditure or by creative engineering, but if you can’t move the rail lines, if the utilities are going to be an issue and if you can’t build something there because of the water table, and the three entities that could tell you that aren’t at the table from the beginning, then I think at least initially you’re wasting a lot of money and a lot of planning time and creating a soft template that just can’t be feasible.”

The working group’s discussions do not impact the impending $200 million, three-year viaduct rehabilitation project, but rather offer a permanent solution for the highway. Gov. Deval Patrick announced on Nov. 19, 2013 that the repair project would be phase one of the I-91 remediation; phase two would be this study for what Patrick called “a replacement project,” which is anticipated to take 16 to 18 months to complete.

“What this MassDOT viaduct study is supposed to be dealing with is the long-term vision of where we need to be and what need to transpire to make this most effective, safe and economically viable,” Edwards said.

Edwards said he has heard from many citizens concerned with Patrick’s plan.

“The obvious concern that comes up first is the cost – the fact that you’re doing a significant amount of work just to make the highway safe with a plan that after you’re making this huge taxpayer expenditure and then come up with a plan to address it long term,” Edwards said. “It’s like fixing a leaky roof when you should just tear it all the way down to the studs and build a new one. In an ideal situation, that’s that I’d be advocating to have done, but that’s not an option.”

MassDOT issued a press release on Sept. 19 stating the phase one repair project was put out to bid, however, messages left by Reminder Publications with the state agency requesting more information on the timetable and requirements of a successful bid were never returned.

The phase two working group is expected to meet nine times through Spring 2015, with a goal of producing a final report by November or December 2015, according to MassDOT materials provided by Edwards. As part of the process, three public meetings, tentatively scheduled for spring, summer and fall 2015, would take place to garner feedback from the public. Edwards said he always welcomes community input.

The study group plans to include invited federal, state and local elected representatives from the area, as well as advocacy groups, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) and transportation entities, such as Amtrak, CSX Railroad, Peter Pan Bus Lines and the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, according to working group materials.

“I don’t expect to be the smartest man in the room; I don’t have any type of background in civil engineering or any engineering,” Edwards said. “I hope I can bring some common sense to the equation and broach some of the questions and comments that sometimes really smart people don’t seem to recognize when they begin these grandiose plans with no budget in place.”

While rail companies were listed among those the working group will aim to receive feedback from, Edwards said their absence at the initial meeting was notable. He stressed the need for that expertise early in the process in order to formulate realistic guidelines in which plans for the roadway are developed.

“Why would you plan something that can’t be done because the railroad can’t be moved? Why don’t you get the railroad there right at the beginning to tell you and give you a template of what the possibilities are in the real world?” he queried.

“We’re hearing so much about the expansion of railroads and high-speed rail service, whether its’ east-west or north south. How is all of that impacted?” Edwards added, pointing to the Union Station renovation as something else to consider in talks.

 Edwards also noted that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could provide significant help in determining feasible plans with regard to water tables and flood plains, while also pointing out that utilities enter and exit the city over and under the Connecticut River.

Edwards said he also hoped the study group would consider impacts to the area beyond the physical.

“I am a firm believer that in urban settings you have to have a vibrant downtown, so part of the question is how is this highway, elevated across the heart of our city, affecting us economically and some of those considerations have to be part of the equation,” he said.
    Edwards also indicated he was curious to see how MassDOT would include other communities in the discussion. He explained the current plans for the project were narrow in scope, focusing solely on the viaduct, while representatives from surrounding municipalities, such as Holyoke and Longmeadow, have voiced a desire to have a broader look at the impact of Greater Springfield in its entirety.

Edwards did say that along with the MassDOT study, the PVPC was in the midst of a study regarding I-91 from the South End/Longmeadow curve to the Connecticut border and early indications were that the two studies would be “married together” in some fashion.

“You hope at the end of the day the two pieces fit together, but if they might not because you have two separate entities that might have different methods and findings,” he said, adding it was his belief that the study should be more comprehensive, including a larger portion of the I-91 corridor. “These aren’t just Springfield tax dollars being spent here.”