Elevated I-91 Highway Through Springfield, Mass., May Stay Put Despite Local Wishes

Dec 4, 2018

Even as renovation of the elevated section of Interstate 91 in downtown Springfield, Massachusetts, has wrapped up, state transportation officials are looking 20 years into the future. 

A recent study from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation suggested renovating the highway nearby, but leaving the viaduct intact. From Chapter 5 of the study:

Upon consideration of all factors evaluated in this study, including benefits, impacts, and cost, none of the Build Alternatives will be recommended for advancement to the project development process at this time. It is apparent that many of the benefits identified within the alternatives that address current deficiencies or safety concerns within the study area could be fully or partially achieved through near- and mid-term improvements, which are not contingent upon replacement of the existing elevated viaduct structure. 

That idea has upset some economic development officials and mayors in western Massachusetts.

Jim Kinney is a business reporter with The Springfield Republican who's covered this story. He talked with NEPR about the proposal and what has area officials angry.

Jim Kinney, The Republican: The idea that that overpass is going to stay there for generations, at a time when other cities around the country are removing these overpasses, and these elevated highways, from their waterfronts to reconnect downtown with a waterfront — Springfield won't have that happen.

We won't have that opportunity if this plan moves forward, because this plan doesn't call for that to happen. It calls for that highway to remain in place.

Adam Frenier, NEPR: The economic development people wrote a very pointed letter to MassDOT talking about the regional equity part of all this, that if this is taking place in Boston, that it would happen. Talk a little bit about that.

A lot of people in this region are still very upset about the Big Dig, and how that sort of took all the transportation funding from the state for many years. It has come out nicely.

But now, where's our turn, now that we have an opportunity, or might have an opportunity in the near future, to do the same thing — to remove the overpass, and reconnect neighborhoods, and undo some of what a lot of urban planners think was damage done in the '50s and '60s when they built these overpasses through urban areas and along waterfronts.

We won't, in western Mass., have that happen. We're going to live with the 1965, '68, thinking till 2068, probably.

What's MassDOT said about all of this?

In a worded e-mail, "Thank you very much for your input." And not much else, which has annoyed people even more, because that's what it sounds like.

With Congressman Richard Neal looking like he's headed to chair the House Ways and Means Committee, can that potential clout help projects like this, in his backyard?

Very much definitely. And he's been vocal about his support of infrastructure programs, and he's been vocal about what he would work with a Trump administration on — building projects, infrastructure projects like this.

That's one of the reasons that makes this report and this decision very frustrating, because if not taking down the highway is the recommendation, well, there'll be an opportunity to maybe get it funded, but you won't, because MassDOT says they don't want to take down the highway.

An aerial view of the Longmeadow curve on I-91 north in Massachusetts.
Credit Patrick Johnson / The Republican / masslive.com/photos

Now the $700 million recommendation did include a lot of much-needed projects, including addressing the much-heated Longmeadow curve, and also improving pedestrian access on West Street near the North End Bridge, some areas where it's very dangerous for pedestrians to cross.

So there are some good things here. But the major frustration is it would leave that overpass.