METHUEN -- For many Merrimack Valley commuters, Interstate 93 seems so close yet is so hard to reach.
Every morning, the line of cars extending from the traffic circle that links routes 110/113 to the I-93 ramps stretches for miles into Dracut, said state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen. During the evening rush hour, traffic backing up from the rotary spills onto I-93, creating a dangerous environment for drivers, Campbell said.
But the commuting nightmare could be over in four years, as the state Department of Transportation is ready to reconstruct the interchange to alleviate congestion.
U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat, said the project should ease traffic and take pressure off nearby residents and businesses impacted by it.
"The bottom line is, it is about creating jobs -- creating jobs right here in the Merrimack Valley, close to where people want to work as well as live," Tsongas said moments before shoveling soil at the project's groundbreaking ceremony Tuesday morning.
The rotary is notorious for daily gridlock, which has affected countless commuters from Dracut, Lawrence and and many in New Hampshire. About 1 million vehicles travel on I-93 each week near Exit 46 at the rotary, according to DOT.
Standing on Riverside Drive, just before the rotary where 18-wheelers whiz by, Methuen Mayor Stephen Zanni said the intersection has seen numerous accidents over the years. This is why the project is as much for the safety of residents as for the economic development of the Route 110 commercial corridor, Zanni said.
Seeing the project completed is particularly important for those who were involved in the construction initiative in 2001. After more than 70 public meetings, the DOT project reflects residents' input, said Campbell, who served on the Methuen City Council a decade ago during the early stages of the initiative. Campbell said public support was crucial. Those attending the ceremony also stressed that the project could not have come true without the commitment of lawmakers and government officials to addressing the infrastructure improvement needs.
Tsongas said her predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan, had secured $600,000 toward the project before she obtained $900,000 in 2009 in the Interstate Maintenance Discretionary Fund within the Federal Housing Administration budget. She also supported the Surface Transportation Extension Act that was enacted in 2012, authorizing $105 billion in funding for transit and highway projects. The funding included $1.2 billion for Massachusetts, of which the state will be reimbursed $55 million, or about 80 percent of the Methuen Interchange project, according to Tsongas' office.
The rotary was first constructed in 1959. Much has changed since then, including the volume of traffic going through the area, she said.
"And we as the government has to stay on top of those changes and acknowledge where there is time to make an investment and bring a particular project forward," Tsongas said.
The project is expected to start shortly and be completed in April 2018.
During the ceremony, Richard Davey, DOT secretary, read comments from Patrick lauding the project. Patrick is in Panama to attend the inauguration of the new President Juan Carlos Varela on behalf of President Barack Obama.
State Rep. Colleen Garry, D-Dracut, said the rotary improvements in Methuen has a regional impact.
"(Routes) 110 and 113 are the gateways to Dracut. Certainly, we are looking for economic development in that community," Garry said. "It's not easy to get to Dracut. And this is one of the ways that is going to help promote that -- getting people to Dracut through Methuen," she said.
Zanni said the state will be soon be constructing a boat/kayak ramp off on the Merrimack River on the west side of I-93 near the traffic circle. The project should help improve traffic access to commercial establishments in the area, Zanni said.
How the construction will work
The Methuen Interchange project will replace the rotary with two new ramps -- one off-ramp from I-93 northbound and an on-ramp from I-93 southbound, which will be both at Exit 46. On the west side of I-93, there will be new traffic signals at the base of the highway's off-ramp where it intersects with Route 113.
Route 113 will be widened between I-93's southbound off-ramp and Albert Street. There will also be new traffic signals at the intersection of Branch Street/Route 113 and Riverside Drive/Route 110.
On the east side, Route 113, or Lowell Street, will be realigned at the Haverhill Street intersection. The existing traffic signals on the east side of the highway will be upgraded, and Haverhill Street will also be improved with an additional travel lane and sidewalk, according to the DOT.
-- HIROKO SATO