Pols and advocates discuss what it could mean to take down the McGrath overpass
The Somerville Wire recently received a Kozik Environmental Justice Reporting Grant, through the National Press Foundation and the National Press Club Journalism Institute. This article is the last in a series about how roadways like McGrath Highway and others in East Somerville have posed safety and health risks to residents, many of whom are immigrants and working-class individuals. Not only do highways present barriers, dividing East Somerville from other neighborhoods, but residents face the prevalent threat of air and noise pollution. Advocates have said that this is not an accident. Here is a look at efforts to ground McGrath Highway and to deconstruct the overpass that has served as a blight on the community for so long.
(Somerville Wire) – McGrath Highway has long been recognized by residents, political figures, and activists as a “scar” on one of the neighborhoods that it runs through, East Somerville. As a barrier that poses safety challenges for those wishing to cross it, the roadway cuts the people who live there off from other parts of the city, walling off communities of color. Now, in light of the infrastructure deal that President Joe Biden signed into law, officials are hoping that federal money could be contributed to a project that has been long desired by East Somerville’s population: the tearing down of McGrath Highway’s overpass. Following Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s remarks that funding should go towards eliminating highways that have split Black and white neighborhoods, Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone tweeted that he would like to see the problems with McGrath addressed.
“We’ve got one of those community-dividing overpasses in Somerville (McGrath), and we’re planning to rip it down,” Curtatone wrote on Nov. 8. “Sounds like we’ve got a federal funding source.”
East Somerville resident and Somerville Alliance for Safe Streets member Joan Liu has lived with McGrath in her backyard and described the impact that it has had on her life. Living on Florence Street, she feels the burden of the highway whenever she tries to traverse it to get to different parts of Somerville.
“I feel cut off from the rest of Somerville. I live in East Somerville, so I’m cut off from I-93 on the north side and McGrath on the other side,” said Liu. “If I wanted to go to Union Square or City Hall, I have to cross McGrath Highway. It actually took a couple of years before I realized there was the Gilman Street underpass, so I can avoid experiencing McGrath. I feel like you step into a completely different world once you’ve crossed under McGrath. … Cars race by all the time. They’re eager to get on the highway. Sometimes even just crossing … to get outside of East Somerville, you have to deal with these cars that aren’t following any traffic laws and just doing whatever they feel like doing.”
Following years of advocacy and activism, part of McGrath Highway that was elevated in the 1950s is intended to come down—it is just a matter of when. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has made plans to put McGrath on “road diet,” and this project is at the 25% design stage, according to Rep. Mike Connolly. The diet would involve reducing car lanes from six to four, as well as the creation of bike lanes that will have a physical barrier separating cyclists from automobiles. MassDOT has also responded to calls for the reduction of speed limits. Connolly also announced on Dec. 8 several other updates from MassDOT in the vicinity of McGrath Highway and Mystic Ave., an area that has become known as the “Corridor of Death,” due to the accidents that have happened there. In particular, a new, signalized crosswalk at Blakely Ave. has been completed, and a raised crosswalk at the Kensington Underpass is now under construction.
Connolly has been fighting for improvements from MassDOT over the years, and he added that projects like the grounding of McGrath Highway will mark a victory over the racism embedded in the presence and design of the roadway. McGrath Highway, he stated, was not built in a more affluent, whiter neighborhood but rather in one that would not be able to fight back as easily, one that could be oppressed and exploited. East Somerville residents and activists are finding their political power, but Connolly said that we must remember that in addressing the McGrath Highway situation, it is important that gentrification does not drive out the people who currently live there.
“Grounding McGrath will really represent an undoing and a righting of that historic wrong,” said Connolly. “That is very significant. At the very same time, we have to acknowledge that without lifting the ban on rent control, without much stronger housing policy across the board, what effectively happens is that as we achieve what we might call transit justice … the overall impact is that the land value goes up … investment purchases go up, rents get raised, and those same communities, and those same families, and those same individuals that for decades were oppressed then find themselves in the position of not being able to afford to remain in their community.”
Visions of how McGrath Highway could be changed have evolved over time. In 2011, community member Steven Nutter began working with the LivableStreets Alliance, convening community group meetings and constructing points on why the roadway needed to be transformed. Nutter described his hopes for what he would ideally like to see happen, in the present day.
“Now that time has passed, it would be interesting to make sure that whatever future design does happen for McGrath Highway, that it lines up and meets the moment of when it’s actually implemented,” said Nutter. “Ideally, [there should be] no more than two lanes in each direction, everything moved over to one side, and really thinking of it as a linear park that happens to have a road in it, rather than a highway. If it was designed right, you could have 75% of it be trees and greenspace.”
Steven Miller, who had been a founding board member of the LivableStreets Alliance, said that he has been arguing with MassDOT over the past 15-20 years, and that MassDOT has come a long way since then. Today, tearing down the McGrath Highway overpass is what East Somerville needs, he said. Air pollution is part of the problem; the more a roadway is lifted, the further pollution can drift, and more people will be exposed. A depressed highway will limit the numbers, although people who are nearby will still get sick. Having the structure come down is just one step, said Miller, as it would also be necessary to reduce the polluting quantity of the traffic. What Miller is most struck by is that the notion of taking down the overpass, which was originally a concept that was only popular in the earlier days of activist groups, has now become accepted and championed as a real possibility.
“We’ve learned that new ideas that once seemed dangerous and radical turn out to be totally practical and an improvement in safety, as well as efficiency,” said Miller. He added, “[MassDOT] would always go through the motions, way back there. It wasn’t clear they were actually listening. I think that some of the older staff felt that they had spent their lifetime doing things a certain way and that that old way worked. They doubted the validity of any other approach. I think that has changed. It’s almost a generational change. But it’s also the entire transportation field has changed. Things that were once only spoken about by fringe visionaries are now mainstream givens. It’s wonderful and remarkable, and I hope it continues.”
Shira Laucharoen is a reporter based in Boston. She currently serves as the assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. In the past she has written for Sampan newspaper, The Somerville Times, Scout Magazine, Boston Magazine, and WBUR.