Slip ramp proposal

THINGS ARE RAMPING UP with a proposal for the installation of a "slip ramp" that pipes directly onto I-93 southbound from Woburn’s heavily traveled Washington Street corridor.

MIDDLESEX - Long viewed as one of Woburn's worst rush hour corridors, it's hardly an area associated with the ability to just slip past traffic.

In a bold proposal pitched to community's City Council earlier this month, City Engineer Jay Corey hopes to change that perception of the Washington Street thoroughfare by pushing for the installation of a "slip ramp" that pipes directly onto I-93 southbound.

Under the concept, commuters would be able to hop directly onto the highway via Cedar Street, a dead end road off of Washington Street by Salem Street that is primarily bordered by a mix of commercial businesses.

Forecasting the undertaking would cost roughly $8.5 million, city officials and area landowners say the new slip ramp's benefits are almost certain to ripple out well past East Woburn. Predicting the relief would be noticeable in Stoneham, Reading, and Winchester, proponents of the new I-93 connection also contend the relatively cheap transportation project would release peak hour traffic pressures by the I-93/95 cloverleaf.

"What we intend to show as part of a functional design report to [the Mass. Dept. of Transportation (MassDOT)] is that by putting in this ramp and taking traffic off Washington Street, you remove some of the congestion by the interchange," said Corey.

Engineering firm Stantec, which recently submitted initial design documents for the undertaking, had been asked by the city last winter to study a two lane slip ramp. However, in light of the dead end street's nexus with abutting commercial properties, as well as the proximity of an existing merger lane from I-95, the city consultant has instead recommended a one lane connection.

The recent presentation to the City Council is the result of a private/public partnership between key municipal officials like Mayor Scott Galvin and Cummings Properties, which is Woburn's largest private landowner.

Cummings Properties is headquartered on Washington Street and has considerable office park holdings in East Woburn, where various commercial zones commonly sit within close proximity to residential neighborhoods.

Like many other commercial landowners in the area, Cummings had in decades past found itself at odds with former city leaders.  

But with Washington Street's more recent Woburn Foreign Motors dealership expansion and the Woburn Landing redevelopment of the old W.R. Grace site, city leaders like Ward 5 Alderman Darlene Mercer-Bruen have clashed at-times with area businesses over commercial impacts to those neighborhood constituents.  

However, in the current case, the traffic issues that historically drove a wedge between those parties have now brought the two sides together.

"The Cedar Street ramp has been on the table for a long time. I think it's a great project for the city, and we've had a lot of help from Cummings Properties," said Woburn's mayor of the partnership.

In joining forces with the city, Cummings Properties CEO Dennis Clarke drummed up support from the larger business community, including representatives from BJ's Wholesale and the Kelly Nissan dealership at the end of Cedar Street.

Because the slip ramp construction as proposed could entail some level of land takings, as well as the realignment those commercial abutters' parking lots, the advocacy campaign over the past year could prove pivotal as the city pitches the highway initiative to state planners.

"Our organization is a big believer in this project, and we know if it gets put in place, it will have a major positive impact on traffic patterns on Washington Street. It will pull a meaningful number of vehicles off the road and onto I-93 much more quickly," Clarke recently remarked during a meeting in City Hall.

"We've also spoken to our business neighbors on Cedar Street and there's been near unanimous support for this project," added the CEO.

Smaller and cheaper

The idea of erecting a slip ramp onto I-93 from Cedar Street was first floated nearly two decades ago as part of MassHighway's doomed 2001 version of an I-93/95 interchange replacement project.

Under that ill-fated design, state transportation planners proposed the construction of a sprawling flyover ramp system that would have required widespread taking of private homes in Woburn, Reading, and Stoneham.

The slip ramp was pitched as a temporary measure that would be implemented during the eventual construction of that cloverleaf replacement. However, in the face of a public uproar, MassHighway (now MassDOT) created a special task force in 2002 to reconsider the project.

Ultimately, that 2001 design was shelved in favor of two potential alternatives, one of which was advanced by MassDOT in 2007.

However, with the timeline for that $300 million highway infrastructure project since delayed on multiple occasions, Mercer-Bruen and Corey — who both sat on the interchange task force — last year suggested the Cedar Street connection as a viable and cheaper way to address traffic backups that seem to be getting worse by the day.

"If you look at the traffic circulation in the area, you can see how all four projects give us better access to the highways," said Corey. "Right now, if you want to go to I-93 from this area, you take a circuitous route along Washington Street to the on-ramp to I-95 North to the I-93 ramp going south. And if anybody's been there during peak periods, you're going about 5 m.p.h. [the whole time]."

"The next way you can get to I-93 south is by taking Washington Street through the intersections of Forbes and Salem Street — both with their own congestion problems — to a vast residential area that [heads to Montvale Avenue]. Then you take a left onto Montvale to get through that queue of traffic to get to I-93," he added.

During his recent presentation to Woburn's City Council, the city engineer, pointing out that MassDOT last year indefinitely postponed the interchange project, explained the city has increasingly turned to smaller and cheaper roadway infrastructure improvements to address rush hour woes that largely stem from backups by I-93 and I-95.

As examples, the city engineer listed the ongoing Montvale Avenue widening project, the construction of extra travel lanes on Washington Street, and the recent installation of adaptive traffic signals on Washington Street as mechanisms that improve traffic flow between the two major highways.

Not willing to stop there, the city is also lobbying for other less expensive initiatives like the replacement of the New Boston Street bridge and the planned installation of adaptive traffic lights by the Woburn Mall.

Though local officials agree the interchange is in drastic need of an upgrade, they believe area communities need to identify other solutions in light of the state's decision to mothball the project last year.

"We need help for that corridor. And it's not just important for the people who live here," said Mercer-Bruen. "In Stoneham and Reading, there's a lot of positive energy building around this because they understand it will help their communities as well."

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