PEABODY — A pair of construction projects to rebuild the Chelsea Viaduct and the Tobin Bridge will commence on April Fool’s Day.
But North Shore commuters will not be laughing.
For motorists who were affected when crews worked 24/7 for two weeks last year to replace the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge near Boston University, the state’s latest highway projects are 11 times the size and will take two years.
A sparse crowd of residents and elected officials attended a public hearing at City Hall to hear a consultant reveal what commuters can expect from the $169 million Tobin Bridge project and the $42 million Chelsea Viaduct restoration.
Nathanial Cabral-Curtis, manager of public involvement at Howard Stein Hudson, a Boston engineering firm hired by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT), told the audience why the work is being done and what they can expect on the roads in and out of Boston during the construction.
“The Tobin Bridge and the Chelsea Viaduct haven’t been worked on since the 1970s,” he said. “This has been a long time coming.”
The Chelsea Viaduct carries Route 1, north and southbound, to the Tobin Bridge. It was built in 1957. While safe to drive on, it is structurally deficient and some of it is severely deteriorated. The structure carries 63,000 vehicles daily, including MBTA bus routes 426 and 428.
The MassDOT project will reduce the northbound travel lanes from three to two starting in early April and the southbound lanes will shrink to two in late April. Work is expected to be done during the overnight hours, but there will be impacts.
Some in the audience snickered when Cabral-Curtis said if motorists don’t take alternate routes to the city, commuters can add nine minutes to their drive into Boston.
MassDOT has pledged to add more trains to the Blue Line during the construction period and encouraged employees to take the Haverhill/Newport/Rockport Commuter Rail Lines to get to work.
But City Councilor-at-Large Ryan Melville, a commuter rail user, said it’s not as simple as asking commuters to take the train.
“The parking lot at the Salem MBTA Commuter Rail station is filled by 7:50 a.m.,” he said. “We really need to get the word out about the impacts of this.”
State Rep. Thomas Walsh (D-Peabody) asked if North Shore residents will see the tolls reduced on the Tobin to make up for the convenience. The answer is no.
He also complained that the state’s two-week notice of two enormous construction projects that will replace more than 500,000 square feet of roadway is much too short.
“The North Shore will get whacked,” he said. “Telling us now to prepare is too late. We’re all playing catch up. I lived through the Big Dig and it wasn’t fun.”
Walsh wanted to know which specific employers had been given a heads-up so they consider possible flex hours for their workers.
Cabral-Curtis was unable to provide the names of companies.
Ward 5 Councilor Joel Saslaw said he’s glad there’s no need for him to travel to Boston.
“The state dropped the ball on this,” he said. “To roll this thing out two weeks before construction starts is unacceptable. While this project is needed, the state didn’t do the North Shore any favors.”
City Council President Jon Turco, who commutes to Logan International Airport daily for work, questioned the timing of the work that he acknowledged was needed.
“The new casino is expected to open in Everett this spring and the state has known that for two years,” he said. “Why did they choose to start construction at the same time?”
Wynn Resorts is scheduled to open Encore Boston Harbor, the $2.4 billion casino set on 33 acres along the Mystic River, in June.
In response, Cabral-Curtis said the casino should have little impact on traffic.
“Casino traffic is different,” he said. “People don’t go to a casino at 9 a.m. and leave at 5,” he said
City Councilor-at-Large Anne Manning Martin, who drives 30 miles to Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood each morning, said she’s not looking forward to the next two years.
“My drive to Boston already takes 90 minutes,” she said. “I hope everyone understands private companies have more flexibility to encourage their employees to work at off hours, public employees have no discretion.”
MassDOT will hold another public meeting Thursday at Saugus Town Hall, 298 Central St., Saugus, beginning at 6 p.m.