By PATRICK BLAIS
MIDDLESEX - It's increasingly looking like the Mass. Water Resource Authority (MWRA) will avert a catastrophic and long-feared failure of its primary delivery main for more than 150,000 customers clustered around the water provider's Northern Intermediate High service area.
But before that victory can be declared by the quasi-public agency, commuters who utilize the Fells Reservation Parkways around Spot Pond in Stoneham will have to survive months of potential traffic headaches as motorists are detoured away from a significant stretch of the road network between Stone Zoo and Main Street by Friendly's Restaurant.
Late last month, the MWRA turned Pond and South Streets in Stoneham into a one-way traffic corridor beginning at the end of Woodland Road, or the thoroughfare's connection to West Wymoing Avenue and the Lynn Fells Parkway in Melrose.
The new traffic pattern will remain in place for at least the next five months.
"What this traffic plan does is, beginning in the morning, make Pond Street a one-way heading towards I-93 and Main Street. If your coming down Main Street [towards Friendly's Restaurant], you'll no longer be able to turn left," said MWRA project manager Jerry Sheehan late last month during a forum at Stoneham High School.
Under the new weekday travel restrictions, needed so workers from Dracut-based Albanese D&S can safely install a new 48-inch water main, only westbound traffic heading from the vicinity of Melrose towards Main Street and Fallon Road in Stoneham will be permitted between the hours of 7 a.m. and 5 p.m.
By contrast, eastbound commuters, or those heading down Pond Street from Friendly's Restaurant towards points in Malden and Melrose — such as the Orange Line MBTA stations in those cities — will now be required to loop entirely around Spot Pond.
Per the detour arrangement, motorists will be forced to continue straight on Main Street/Route 28 by Friendly's Restaurant and head to the Fellsway West exit in Medford, where commuters can pick up Elm Street. The same feat can also be reached by utilizing I-93 southbound, though during the morning commute, it is almost certainly quicker to stay on Route 28.
Once on Elm Street, which heads towards the Flynn Skating Rink, commuters can then hop onto Woodland Road, which via a roundabout forks towards Malden and Oak Grove in Melrose, as well as back towards the original detour point in Stoneham by passing the old Boston Regional Medical Center (BRMC).
Just after the BRMC, Woodland Road becomes Pond Street, which snakes by Stone Zoo before eventually finally leading back to the junction of Main Street and North Border Road by Friendly's Restaurant.
"When we get to the [vicinity of Stone Zoo], there isn't any good alternative for diverting traffic, unless you start pushing it to residential side streets…[This detour] sounds like a long distance, but actually not a long time," suggested Sheehan, who predicted the eastbound detour will add four-to-six minutes to motorist's commute.
In the home stretch
The recently instituted traffic configurations, which further include resident-only travel restrictions on several side streets that could otherwise be utilized as a short-cut, are needed to finish a massive $37.5 million infrastructure project that began in neighboring Reading four-years-ago.
Specifically, the undertaking involves the creation of a redundant pipeline connection to service the MWRA's Northern Intermediate High region, which brings drinking water to 150,000 customers in Stoneham, Woburn, Winchester, Reading, Wakefield, and Wilmington.
Once complete, a new 48-inch main, which runs across the entire length of Stoneham from Spot Pond to the Reading side of Route 28, will be looped into existing MWRA isolator valves on Washington Street in Woburn by the I-95 overpass.
The MWRA has also constructed a backup pumping station, as well as a new 20 million-gallon covered storage tank, by the old BRMC.
For the past decade, MWRA Executive Director Frederick Laskey and other agency officials have warned the region's primary service main, the sole source of water for all of those communities but Woburn, is constructed of flawed materials that have are known to be susceptible to massive breaches.
During the gathering at Stoneham High School last month, David Coppes, the MWRA's Chief Operating Officer (COO), warned that if that pipeline fails, customers in the area will experience water shortages within an hour.
"We have a single pipeline that was constructed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This pipeline has had catastrophic failures across the country. And there is no redundancy for that pipeline, so if there was a problem, we would not be able to supply water," the COO explained.
This spring's work on the pipeline marks the third and final year of construction in Stoneham, where residents have borne considerable traffic and quality-of-life issues as a result of the project.
Among other complaints, residents along the pipeline route have complained about blasting damage to their homes, flooding from generator-powered pump failures, rodent infestations, and property damage due to the staging of excavation equipment and building materials on residential side streets.
"We completely apologize for what you've had to endure," Sheehan told Stoneham residents during the high school forum. "This is a series of projects that have been going on for a number of years, but we're nearing the end of construction, when we can take that [potentially compromised] pipeline out of service."
Stoneham has not been alone in experiencing the impacts of the work.
Beginning in May of 2015, Albanese D&S crews began excavating a 2,400 foot-long swath of West Street in Reading to install a new 36-inch water main. The following year, the work continued as another 8,800 linear feet of pipeline was buried between Hopkins Street, Oak Street, and Summer Avenue in Reading, before the service connection was extended into Woburn via Washington Street.
Related work has also been completed in Wakefield over the past few years.
According to Coppes, though the new main installation will be finished this coming fall, the MWRA still has to contend with the old 1970's-era water main, which also originates near the intersection of Main Street/Pond Street/and North Border Road in Stoneham.
In the summer of 2020, the MWRA hopes to begin work on replacing that antiquated service connection, which runs into a wooded area behind the old Atlantic Gelatin or Kraft Foods property in Woburn. Though the pipeline's exact path from that point is unclear, the service line eventually ends up by the I-95 overpass on Washington Street by Woburn and Reading.
In fact, just late last week, emergency repair crews scrambled to plug a hole punched into that main by the border of Winchester and Stoneham. The accident reportedly occured after a private contractor, performing boring work to determine the extent of ledge around that pipeline, inadvertently lowered the drill right into the main.
As a result, municipal officials in Woburn, Winchester, Reading, and Stoneham were all advised about potential water pressure and discoloration issues. Able to reverse the flow of the water until a three-foot wide coupling could be slipped over the near perfect circular hole two days later, the MWRA this Monday revealed the impact to customers was less severe than initially feared.
"Nobody lost water service, but we were concerned about was reduced water pressure. We had to send the water backwards, so we did have a couple of reports of discolored water, but it wasn't as widespread as we thought," the MWRA spokesperson Ria Convery explained.