Search for South Shore transit solutions is on in earnest

When a New York couple announced that they were being transferred to Boston, friends advised against buying a home on the South Shore. The commute, they warned, would be a daily nightmare because of the Southeast Expressway. Another man, a loan officer for a South Shore bank, says he'd like to find a job in Boston because he feels it would have more potential. But he can't bring himself to accept the reality of a one-hour (or more) commute -- much of it on the expressway -- in each direction.

The notorious roadway, the only major highway linking downtown Boston to southern suburbs, is halfway through a $63 million overhaul. Within two weeks concrete barriers will reappear along its lanes, signaling the start of Phase II of the reconstruction project. Between April 1 and the end of November, two lanes will be closed to traffic at all times. Bridge decks on the southbound side will be rebuilt, lighting will be installed, drainage will be improved. Finally, all eight lanes (including two breakdown lanes) will be resurfaced.

But in the end, the Southeast Expressway's capacity for traffic will not be expanded by even one automobile. Every day about 160,000 motorists will still be traveling on a roadway designed in the 1950s to carry 75,000 vehicles.

Local officials, state representatives, and even many commuters have nothing but praise for the state's efforts to minimize motorist inconvenience during the project. They also understand that the expressway's structural limitations preclude the addition of more lanes.

But, more and more, South Shore residents are demanding that the state do more than simply preserve the status quo.

Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has gotten the message. Last week he outlined a five-point plan to alleviate the transportation tangle on the South Shore. It's a plan that leans heavily on mass transit, rather than on an improved highway network.

As Scott Pickard, spokesman for the American Automobile Association of Massachusetts (AAA), puts it: ``They're not particularly oriented toward highways in the Dukakis administration.''

The Dukakis plan features:

Passenger rail service. Governor Dukakis, in announcing his support of restoring commuter rail service to the South Shore, said: ``If you don't have this, you can widen Route 3 to 12 lanes and still not meet the need.''

Suburbs south of Boston are the only ones that are not served by commuter rail. Private passenger service was discontinued in 1959, when it could not turn a profit. Soon after, any hope of restoring commuter rail went up in smoke when the bridge over the Neponset River burned down.

Mr. Dukakis says the state will expedite its study of the environmental impacts along three existing rail beds. Even so, the service wouldn't be running for at least ``a few years,'' he said. Funding is an obvious problem. The state will ask the federal government to foot the bill for 80 percent of the $200 million project.

Rapid transit service. Improved service on Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) lines to Quincy and Braintree is on its way, the governor promises. Within a year, passenger capacity on each train will be expanded 50 percent, he says.

The MBTA beefed up its service to the South Shore at this time last year in an effort to get motorists off the road during Phase I of the expressway reconstruction.

``The first couple of weeks saw an increase in ridership in Braintree and Quincy,'' says state Rep. Frank Hynes (D) of Marshfield. ``But as soon as the trains ran into problems -- delays, breakdowns, hot, overcrowded -- people left the trains and by the latter part of April were back in their private automobiles.''

Commuter boat service. The state will continue to subsidize commuter-boat service between Hingham and Boston, Dukakis said. Ridership usually swells in spring and summer, state officials explain.

Bus service. Private bus companies operating on the South Shore will continue to receive state subsidies.

Route 3. Starting May 1, motorists will be allowed to drive in the breakdown lanes of Route 3 between Weymouth and Marshfield.

``Not everyone commutes to Boston,'' Dukakis said in announcing the only proposal that directly affects the South Shore motorist.

The announcement came as a disappointment to those who wanted the governor to pledge to widen the roadway, which shrinks from three lanes to two in Weymouth.

The governor said the state will ``examine all the options for Route 3'' in an environmental impact statement.

Although commuters have been allowed for years to drive in the breakdown lanes of the expressway itself during rush hours, it is normally illegal to drive in such lanes on Route 3 beyond the intersection with Route 128. Like many Massachusetts traffic regulations, however, this one is ignored by many drivers -- mostly with impunity.

Secretary of Transportation Frederick Salvucci says the state will make ``modest'' adjustments to ramps and will ``look for opportunities to put in a pullout pocket or two.'' The use of breakdown lanes during rush hours has worked well on the Southeast Expressway, he adds.

Richard Hoover of Massachusetts AAA, which has a new headquarters just off Route 3 in Rockland, says the administration is on the right track. ``We're heartened that the governor is looking at the situation down here, but some of these [ideas] are temporary, make-do solutions,'' he adds.

AAA's Mr. Pickard says transportation on the South Shore ``is one of . . . major concerns [if not the major concern] of business, industry, commerce, and local officials. . . . It's surprising to people when they look and see how much economic development there's been in spite of the poor transportation network.''

Arthur Norris, vice-president and general manager of The Smith Print Inc. in Norwell, says the company does 60 percent of its printing business in Boston. Its success depends partly upon getting shipments to customers on time, he says.

``Typically, we've had rather good luck getting in and out of the city,'' Mr. Norris says. ``But we've adjusted our schedule. We don't go into Boston between 7 and 9 a.m., and we make it a point to be out before 4 p.m.''

But the South Shore economy continues to boom in spite of the bumper-to-bumper traffic during morning and evening hours. Between 1980 and '83, 7,000 jobs were created in Plymouth County, says Brooks Kelly, executive director of the Plymouth County Development Council. ``We think the transportation problems are quite severe. The population has increased tremendously, while improvements to the transportation network have been virtually nil,'' he says.

Mr. Kelly says completion of Route 44 (an east-to-west highway linking Route 3 and Plymouth to Interstate 495) is the top priority for Plymouth County. But he says it will be 1986 -- at the earliest -- before the state finishes the Environmental Impact Statement that must accompany such a project.

Now Kelly and other local businessmen have formed the Route 44 Task Force to lobby for the project. Their logo -- a turtle with the the number 44 -- is ``symbolic,'' Kelly laughs, declining to explain whether it symbolizes the pace of traffic on the road or the pace of progress by the state.

In conjunction with the economic upturn, the South Shore's population has skyrocketed. Representative Hynes projects that the lower South Shore -- from Weymouth to Sandwich -- will have experienced a 169 percent increase in population between 1950 and 1990. Today, the South Shore-Cape Cod region is the fastest growing in the state, he says.

The growth has sparked a need not only for better ways to get in and out of Boston, but also for better secondary roads to travel from town to town on the South Shore, Mr. Hynes says. He is loudly seconded by realtors and business people, who deplore the congestion along roads such as Routes 53 and 139 in commercial districts of Hanover, Norwell, and Marshfield.

``We have a [state] administration that's very sensitive to mass-transit needs,'' Hynes says, visibly buoyed by the governor's support for commuter rail. ``Now we need the administration to have the same sensitivity to the need for road transportation.'' -- 30 --

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