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Opinions differ on safety of I-91's infrastructure

Date: 10/24/2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD — Frank DePaola, the highway administrator for the state's Department of Transportation (MassDOT), was adamant about the condition of Interstate 91 as it passes through downtown Springfield.

"Let me make a bold statement," he said to Reminder Publications last week: "There's not a safety concern."

According to Timothy Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Interstate 91 is "the most heavily traveled highway in the region."

Yet, DePaola was also blunt in stating the deck of the raised portion of the highway has been negatively rated and continuing spot repairs is "a matter of diminishing returns."

Recent published reports about the condition of the viaduct has raised concerns and have spread rumors about the timetable, costs and nature of repairs.

DePaola said that MassDOT Secretary and CEO Richard Davey asked to study various options before moving ahead with what DePaola believes will eventually happen: a section by section replacement of the deck or roadway, which he said would not require the closing of the highway.

According to DePaola, Davey wants to hire a consultant to work with the MassDOT on developing plans that would range from re-routing the highway to having the Pioneer Valley's version of the Big Dig and put it underground.

DePaola added that a tunnel would be the "least likely" plan."

Brennan said that any repair of the interstate would be a "megaproject." DePaola cited a price of replacing the deck at about $360 million, which Brennan said is about half of what the Commonwealth spends statewide on roads and bridges annually.

Brennan believes that repairing the existing structure is the most affordable course of action. He said a tunnel would be "two times, three times, four times" that amount.

Brennan added that re-routing I-91 — possibly across the river to follow U.S. Route 5 is a "very remote possibility." Originally, planners wanted to put the interstate in West Springfield following U.S. Route 5.

He added, "My feeling that repairing the structure at the existing location makes a lot of sense."

His agency prepares a transportation plan for federal authorities and said that the need to undertake major rebuilding "was not a total surprise."

DePaola said the most likely plan to address the deck problems would be a technique the Commonwealth has used at a bridge repair in Medford. He explained that MassDOT would set up movable barriers on weekends to direct the flow of traffic to one lane while another lane is being repaired. The work crews would then replace the deck section by section. During holiday travel period or The Big E, the work would be suspended, he added.

While alternative plans are being developed, this plan would also be completed, DePaola said. This approach would also aid in seeking funding sources.

He estimated a timetable would be four to six months to hire a consultant and then six months for the consultant to develop the alternative plans. In mid-2013, there would be a series of public meetings with work starting in 2014.

If the deck replacement plan is selected, DePaola believes it would be completed by 2016. If the decision is made to dramatically change the highway, he said that a period of six to eight years would be needed.

DePaola doesn't to believe the development of a casino in Springfield would be affected by the deck repairs, but added that businesses requiring additional changes to the highway would have to supply funding for that amendment.