Logan International Airport is only 13.6 miles from the center of Salem, but for those who drive there often, it can sometimes feel like 136 miles.
"At certain times of day, during the rush hour in the morning and afternoons, it can be a real nightmare," said Sean McKinnon, general manager of North Shore Taxi in Peabody, whose fleet makes 200 or more trips per week down Route 1A to the airport. "What should be a 20- or 30-minute trip can take upwards of an hour or more."
How would a proposed $1 billion casino and resort at Suffolk Downs on 1A in Revere impact that?
According to Suffolk Downs officials, it would actually help traffic flow better, once they complete $40 million in traffic improvements on and around Route 1A that are part of the casino proposal.
As many commuters can attest, one of the biggest bottlenecks during rush hour is the traffic light at the intersection of Route 1A and Boardman Street, just south of the racetrack. In a plan unveiled Friday, the casino developer proposes to build a two-lane flyover on Route 1A's northbound lane that would bypass the Boardman Street intersection. In addition, Route 1A's southbound lane would be widened near the intersection, having the double effect of more lanes and less competing traffic, said David Black, senior project manager at Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc. of Boston, the track's traffic consultant.
"There is a significant problem at Boardman Street today, but by building a flyover, we will take a significant chunk of traffic away from that intersection," said Black, who added that the level of service would improve from a grade F to a grade C under the plan.
It's a simple numbers game. The casino expects to generate about 10,000 additional car trips per weekday and about 15,000 on Saturdays. Currently, about 60,000 cars drive by Suffolk Downs every day.
"The improvements are designed to handle more volume than we're projecting (to add)," said Chip Tuttle, a Salem resident who is Suffolk's chief operating officer. He said North Shore travelers would find it easier driving to the airport than it is now.
The proposal does not address the other huge bottleneck on Route 1A — Bell Circle, the somewhat chaotic rotary where routes 1A, 16 and 60 come together. Tuttle said, however, that they've been talking with the mayor of Revere about some kind of joint effort at Bell Circle that might alleviate traffic problems.
But Gary Barrett, executive director of the North Shore Economic Alliance, said there are a lot of questions to answer before North Shore businesspeople can feel comfortable that traffic won't be worse.
"From a North Shore economic development point of view, access to Logan and the city of Boston is absolutely critical ... (and) Suffolk Downs sits between the North Shore and Logan Airport, and that is of primary concern," Barrett said. "This is something the advocates for the Suffolk Downs casino and the gaming commission are going to have to address as the hearings proceed."
The traffic improvements are a necessary investment if the 77-year-old Suffolk Downs is to succeed in winning the one gambling license set aside for the Boston area under the controversial legislation legalizing a set number of casinos in the state last year.
"Traffic was one of the top concerns we had out of all the impacts we looked at" when considering the casino legislation, said Rep. John Keenan of Salem. "I have no idea that Suffolk is going to win that (casino bid), but traffic issues are going to be dealt with wherever those licenses are awarded."
State Sen. Thomas McGee of Lynn, chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation, is trying to organize an informational presentation for North Shore lawmakers sometime this week, Keenan said.
"I haven't seen all the details, but I think the idea of a flyover makes sense to move traffic along," Keenan said. "I'm hopeful it will improve traffic flow, or at a minimum not make it worse. That's the goal."
Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll sees value in the Suffolk Downs traffic proposal.
"My sense is those roadways are all overly stressed and could use fixes whether the Suffolk Downs casino is built or not," she said. "If you can do that using private dollars, that is a real plus, especially now when state and city governments are strapped for cash. ... Forty million dollars is a pretty substantial transportation investment."
For North Shore Taxi drivers, who make a living driving to Logan, the flyover proposal is a winner.
"I fully support the idea," McKinnon said. "The casino and the new improvements I have heard about will make a huge difference for traffic and the economy."