Sumner Tunnel

Here's How Bad the First Sumner Tunnel Closure Made Traffic in Boston

The Sumner Tunnel closed for repairs on June 11, extending travel times in Boston by up to 11 minutes

Traffic on the Zakim Bridge in Boston
Nicolaus Czarnecki/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images, File

Drivers faced a roughly threefold jump in travel times through the Ted Williams Tunnel and the normally breezy Sunday drive across the Tobin Bridge turned into a bumper-to-bumper mess during the first full weekend closure of 87-year-old Sumner Tunnel for repairs, a Massachusetts Department of Transportation official said Wednesday.

Quantifying the headaches that travelers and East Boston residents experienced at the outset of the major project, Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver presented traffic impact data collected over the first of 36 weekends in which motorists heading westbound toward downtown Boston or Interstate will be rerouted away from the Sumner.

Traveling between downtown Boston and East Boston, including Logan International Airport, is about to become even more of a headache. A major, year-plus rehabilitation project in the Sumner Tunnel, which is in a state of “disrepair” 87 years after it opened as the first traffic tunnel in Massachusetts, is set to kick off Friday night.

On Saturday, June 4 -- the last weekend before the Sumner project kicked off -- it took drivers about two minutes to get through the Ted Williams Tunnel in the morning and early afternoon, then jumped to a peak of four minutes around 4 p.m. A week later, with the Sumner closed and many drivers redirected to the Ted Williams, travel times soared to between six and eight minutes in the morning and early afternoon and hit a high of 11 minutes at 7 p.m., Gulliver said.

Traffic was also higher in the Ted Williams on Sunday, June 12, though the contrast with prior weekends was not as stark as Saturday.

Some traffic built up on the Tobin Bridge headed from Chelsea to Charlestown on the Saturday of the weekend closure, but the impacts were far worse on Sunday. Typically, the drive across the Mystic River takes only a minute or so; on that Sunday, it peaked at five minutes around 3 p.m.

"Especially on midday Saturday and then a portion of Sunday, there was some heavier-than-expected traffic congestion," Gulliver told MassDOT's board. "There was a variety of reasons for that, including some errant traffic control that we have since worked with Massport to correct. We expect some of that traffic congestion is not going to be experienced the same way in future weeks."

MassDOT so far has only completed one of the 36 planned weekend Sumner closures and left the tunnel open to motorists on the most recent Juneteenth holiday weekend. Next year, the state plans to close the Sumner for four months straight in the project's second phase.

"This is the first weekend of this work. We have many more to go. There's a settling-in period we have experienced many times with a lot of our projects," Gulliver said. "It's just worth noting that an extensive amount of public process went into this project, but the public generally doesn't react until the project starts up, and that's definitely the case here."

Copyright State House News Service
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