CONNECTING CHICOPEE AND HOLYOKE TO I-91: The genesis of today's I-391 was the Master Highway Plan for the Springfield Metropolitan Area released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Works in 1953. The Master Plan called for the construction of a "major street improvement" (or a conversion to a four-lane surface arterial) to the existing MA 116. The state set aside right-of-way for the upgrade along the existing route, and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority even built a dual-carriageway, culvert-style underpass in preparation for the upgraded MA 116.
By the 1960's, it became clear that Chicopee and Holyoke, two old industrial towns facing decline, needed freeway access to improve traffic circulation and reinvigorate their economies. In 1965, these towns received their wish: the Commonwealth of Massachusetts received approval from the Federal government for a 4.5-mile-long spur from Interstate 91. The "Relocated Route 116" also received a new designation: I-391.
The proposed I-391 was to be built parallel to the Boston and Maine Railroad right-of-way from I-91 north to Rivers Park, and have a bridge across the Connecticut River. Its six lanes (three in each direction) were designed to handle as many as 50,000 vehicles per day (AADT) by 1990. The total cost for land acquisition and construction was estimated at $35 million.
A basic alignment already had been decided by the time I-391 was designated in 1965. Two separate alternatives, which called for I-391 to be built closer to the Connecticut River in Chicopee (westerly alignment / Alternative A) and slightly to the east in North Chicopee (easterly alignment / Alternative B), both were dropped early in the design stage because of the potential for heavy residential displacement.
The construction of the I-391 alignment, as described in the 1971 draft environmental impact statement, was as follows (from south to north):
Bridge at EXIT 2 (MA 116 / Center Street): embankments for this structure were built under the first construction phase (1967-1970).
From Center Street to the proposed Chicopee-West Springfield Bridge across the Connecticut River (near Emerald Street), I-391 was built on a 20-foot to 40-foot embankment.
From Emerald Street to the Chicopee River, I-391 was to be built on a viaduct ranging from 30 feet to 40 feet above street level.
Bridges were to be built over both channels of the Chicopee River. Embankments were to be created to carry I-391 over the floodplain.
The interchange at EXIT 3 (MA 116 / Chicopee Street) was to be built on an embankment except for the bridge over Chicopee Street, and the loop ramp from northbound MA 116 to southbound I-391 (which was built into a rock cut and with a retaining wall to protect the high ground).
At the Massachusetts Turnpike (I-90), a bridge was required to carry I-90 over I-391. There were no plans for a direct connection between the two highways.
From the Massachusetts Turnpike to McKinstry Avenue, I-391 was to be built primarily on embankment, except for areas where the alignment got close to nearby bluffs. A retaining wall was provided for the bluffs section.
A bridge was to be built over McKinstry Avenue. No interchange was planned at this location.
From McKinstry Avenue to the EXIT 4 (MA 141 / Grattan Street), the southbound lanes of I-391 were built on a embankment, while the northbound lanes were built into a rock cut. Retaining walls were to be built to protect properties along the west side of the highway and heavy tree growth along the east side.
As of the 1971 publishing date, the section between the nearby Boston and Maine Railroad and the Connecticut River was subject to a separate environmental review process. The original proposal called for I-391 to be built atop a 20-foot-high embankment above street level, with a bridge to be built above Chicopee Street (MA 116 and MA 141). An alternative proposal called for the construction of an 840-foot-long viaduct in the vicinity of Chicopee Street. Stores and other municipal uses (such as a park, a playground, and a skating rink) were to be placed underneath the I-391 viaduct.
A bridge was to be built over the Connecticut River. Just north of the Connecticut River, EXIT 5 was planned to connect to Main Street in Holyoke with northbound exit-only and southbound entrance-only ramps.
The northern terminus of I-391 in Holyoke remained to be decided by the 1971 publishing date. Alternative C called for construction of a viaduct-and-embankment extension of I-391 north to Beech Street (US 202) with a diamond interchange serving High Street and Maple Street. Alternative D shortened the northern terminus of I-391 by about 0.3 mile. Separate ramps were to connect to Commercial Street (EXIT 6) and the High Street terminus.
The environmental impact statement also envisioned I-391 as an important link in an express buss corridor between Holyoke, Chicopee, Springfield, and possibly as far south as Hartford. However, there were no provisions for bus-exclusive for HOV lanes in the proposal.
This 1970 illustration shows the proposed "joint use" area under an I-391 viaduct in the area of Chicopee Street in Chicopee. Budget restrictions prevented this proposal from going forward. (Illustration from "I-391 Joint Use Study in Chicopee," Massachusetts Department of Public Works, 1970.)
BUILDING I-391: Construction crews began work on I-391 with a short 0.75-mile-long stub from EXIT 1 (I-91) north to EXIT 2 (MA 116 / Center Street) in 1967. The I-391 stub was completed along with I-91 through the area in 1970. However, given the delays associated with years of studies and related public hearings, it appeared that the progress of I-391 was be stopped permanently.
Work finally resumed on I-391 in 1978. However, work was delayed by decisions regarding the controversial Chicopee Street joint-use viaduct, which was scrapped in favor of a concrete viaduct and embankment because of budget constraints, as well as by a final decision on the northern terminus, in which the shorter "Alternative D" was chosen. Miscalculations on the length of steel on an exit ramp, a labor dispute, and the theft of 40 tons of steel from a construction site only added to the delays. After nearly 15 years of construction, I-391 opened to traffic in its entirety in 1982.
According to the Massachusetts Highway Department (MHD), I-391 carries approximately 50,000 vehicles per day through Chicopee, and approximately 30,000 vehicles per day near the northern terminus in Holyoke.
This 2005 photo shows the northbound I-391 approximately one-half mile south of its terminus at High Street in Chicopee. One alternative called for an extension of I-391 north to Beech Street (US 202). (Photo by Dan Vincent.)
SOURCES: Master Highway Plan for the Springfield Metropolitan Area, Massachusetts Department of Public Works (1953); "The Massachusetts Highway Story (1949-1969)," Massachusetts Department of Public Works (1969); "I-391 Joint Use Study in Chicopee," Massachusetts Department of Public Works (1970); "Interstate 391: Draft Environmental Impact Statement and Section 4(f) Statement," Federal Highway Administration and Massachusetts Department of Public Works (1971); "Oakland-Type Collapse Ruled Out in Bay State" by Peter J. Howe, The Boston Globe (10/20/1989); Massachusetts Highway Department; National Labor Relations Board; Scott Oglesby; Alexander Svirsky; Dan Vincent.
I-391 shield by Barry L. Camp. Lightposts by Millerbernd Manufacturing Company.