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When highways attack

1970 Route 128 speed restriction
This is the 128 North ramp coming up from the Route 38 rotary in Woburn, 1970. Note the signs.

Since Burlington is doing a lot of road resurfacing lately, apparently well-executed, here’s a reminder that paving can go wrong. In 1970, the stretch of Route 128 from Route 3 in Burlington to I-93 received a bad batch of asphalt. Something about the mix made it slippery when wet. The result? Carnage.

When it would rain,” says Dave McMahan of Woburn, “we would go to the Mishawum Road bridge to watch. Guaranteed to see an accident.” Retired Burlington firefighter Lee Callahan recalls that oil was seeping onto the road surface when it rained. The highway was left in this condition for several years.

Why? Callahan speculates that state highway funding was sparse due to the recent widening of Route 128 — the project that brought the bad surface in the first place. And then in 1973 the OPEC oil embargo justified a speed restriction. The feds had already dropped the nationwide speed limit to  55 mph to conserve fuel. What’s another 15 mph?

Besides, we all know that 40 mph on Route 128 in Burlington is about as fast as you can go during some parts of a typical workday. Many parts. Most parts. Eventually the highwway was resurfaced and calm returned to Route 128. Some calm. A little calm.

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