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Lord Overpass Redesign Raises Concerns in Lowell

September 12, 2018
Lord Overpass Redesign Raises Concerns in Lowell

City Councilor Rita Mercier, right, questions Transportation Engineer Natasha Vance about the Lord Overpass redesign project at Tuesday night s Council meeting.

LOWELL -- City streets, just like highways and roads across the state, appear to be more gridlocked than ever before.

Residents have desired infrastructure projects that will alleviate traffic across Lowell, making it easier to get from point A to point B.

But with the Lord Overpass redesign project coming soon, many remain skeptical that the project will alleviate traffic -- with concerns that it will make traffic worse along the busy gateway stretch.

City councilors on Tuesday expressed their concerns about gridlock caused by the the fill-in project, asking the city’s transportation engineer to assure them it will work out.

Natasha Vance, the engineer, said the project’s main driver was not to alleviate vehicular traffic congestion. However, the project that will accommodate all modes of transportation and connect the area to the Hamilton Canal Innovation District will not worsen vehicular traffic when construction is completed, the engineer stressed.

“We’re confident the level of service will remain similar to today,” Vance said, pointing to professional engineers conducting traffic counts and analyses.

Complex traffic signalization will allow traffic to flow smoothly, she added.

City Councilor Rita Mercier requested the presentation from the Department of Planning and Development. She asked how filling in the Lord Overpass will be an improvement to traffic problems in the area.

She had thought that alleviating traffic congestion was the primary focus.

“That took me by complete surprise (to learn it wasn’t the top focus),” Mercier said.

She added that she’s worried about traffic crawling there.

“I just don’t get it,” Mercier said. “I’m not an engineer, and I went along with the project. I shouldn’t have. I’m having second thoughts now.”

In response, Vance gave a detailed presentation, showing the Lord Overpass project’s plans and explaining its goals.

Those goals include facilitating multi-modal access to the Hamilton Canal Innovation District, incorporating design elements that meet the city’s Complete Streets policy, and improving the appearance and functionality of the major transportation gateway into downtown.

Safety is a big driver of the project, Vance said. There have been 265 crashes there in the last four years -- more than one crash per week.

“It’s a confusing and complex area,” Vance said.

Currently, the Lord Overpass does not adequately accommodate pedestrian and bicycle traffic, the overpass bridges are in need of replacement, and the split grade design does not allow vehicular traffic to access Jackson Street and the new judicial center.

The initial concept for the project did not alter the overpass and only impacted the intersection of Thorndike, Fletcher, Dutton and Jackson streets; however, in the initial concept, it was not possible for traffic driving under the overpass to safely access Jackson Street, which was a goal of the project.

The project went through three more design iterations to arrive at the current concept, which greatly improves pedestrian safety and access, according to Vance.

It also provides a much safer route for bicycle traffic, which enables the city to meet the stated goals of Complete Streets.

There will also be dedicated lanes for buses and emergency vehicles.

“We’re taking a more holistic approach,” Vance said.

City Councilor Jim Milinazzo said the Thorndike Street to Jackson Street connection is key.

“I’m excited about the project,” he said.

City Councilor Edward Kennedy said he recognizes that something needs to be done to improve access to the Hamilton Canal Innovation District. However, he added that many people have approached him about traffic issues.

“We have to rely on people that are a lot more educated in traffic and traffic control,” Kennedy said.

City Councilor John Leahy asked about opening up Western Avenue with a connection to downtown. The railroad is in the way over there.

“We should pressure somebody to open that up,” Leahy said.

City Manager Eileen Donoghue said the city will look at Western Avenue. There’s a real opportunity for that neighborhood, she said.

Construction will take more than three years, starting this spring. Traffic will be significantly impacted during this lengthy construction period.

The city will alert the public about project updates.

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.

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