Sumner Tunnel fix to cause commuting headaches

Christian M. Wade, The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass.
·3 min read

Apr. 28—BOSTON — At nearly a century old, the Sumner Tunnel is set for a major facelift, and motorists can expect detours and delays when the project gets underway in two years.

The renovation, which is scheduled to begin in 2023, will involve a complete rebuilding of the mile-long tunnel's infrastructure and roadway, as well as technology upgrades to modernize the dilapidated gateway to downtown Boston.

Transportation officials say the project will rival the Big Dig in size and scope. The state has yet to estimate its price tag.

Steve McLaughlin, project manager for the state Department of Transportation, said the aging structure is beyond basic "patches and repairs" and in need of a "top-to-bottom" renovation.

"Clearly, the tunnel needs some love," McLaughlin said during a live-streamed public hearing Tuesday. "There is a lot of work to be done."

That includes removing and replacing the tunnel ceiling and arch support, reconstructing the tunnel deck and replacing the roadway surface, as well as repairing walls and installing fire proof panels.

The project will also install new LED lighting, ventilation, closed circuit cameras and fire alarm systems.

MassDOT officials say technology upgrades will strengthen mobile phones and radio signals in the tunnel — welcome news to commuters accustomed to dropped calls and static.

But the massive endeavor will also mean long-term detours, delays and other headaches for tens of thousands of commuters who use the tunnel each day.

There will be weekend and periodic closures of the tunnel once the project gets underway in spring 2023. That summer, the tunnel will be shut down for four months, when workers begin replacing the ceiling and support structures, MassDOT officials say.

In 2013, the adjacent Callahan Tunnel underwent a nearly $25 million renovation that included closures and detours.

Two years ago, the Tobin Bridge, another major artery into the city, underwent a $42 million renovation that included repairing steel on the upper and lower decks and concrete on the lower deck, repainting and resurfacing.

McLaughlin said the Sumner Tunnel's renovations will be "five times the amount of work" as the Tobin Bridge project.

MassDOT officials are still finalizing designs and haven't released cost estimates for the project. Funding would be contingent upon approval by the Legislature.

The state agency will also apply for federal funding.

Similar to other major renovation projects, MassDOT will be using accelerated construction techniques that include a shortened bidding process with incentives for early completion and penalties for late completion.

The agency says the "design-build" approach also reduces overall costs.

McLaughlin said once the project gets going it will be a 24/7 operation, to shorten the time needed to close the tunnel.

"There is never a good time to shut down a tunnel," he said. "Every minute the tunnel is closed has an impact ... so we are going to go as fast as we can."

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Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group's newspapers and websites. Email him at


The Sumner Tunnel is named for William H. Sumner, son of Gov. Increase Sumner, who served from 1797 to 1799.

Opened to traffic June 30, 1934. It was originally a two-way road that carried traffic in both directions, until the opening of the parallel Callahan Tunnel in 1961.

The tunnel is 8,448 feet long, of which approximately 3,960 feet are underwater.

Toll was 25 cents when the tunnel opened; it's now $2.50 for southbound traffic, without an E-ZPass transponder.

In 2017, the state removed the toll booths as part of a switch to electric tolling.

Source: Massachusetts Department of Transportation