Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Long Term Planning Issues: BU Bridge / Urban Ring / Institutions, and the Impact on Residents

Archie Mazmanian reports (I have spelled out one acronym and added one clarification, Bob, ed.):

As I eagerly await the Executive Office of Transportation (EOT)’s Notice of Project Change on Phase 2 of the Urban Ring, I think of the Inner Belt of yesteryear that would have devastated the Cottage Farm neighborhood in Brookline (where I now reside), perhaps “double-decked” the BU Bridge and then devastated neighborhoods on the Cambridge side but for residents in the more affluent section of Jamaica Plain, Brookline and Cambridge active opposition that proved successful. Prior thereto, portions of lower economic neighborhoods in Jamaica Plain, Roxbury and the South End on the southerly portion of the proposed Inner Belt route and in Somerville on the northerly portion had been demolished, devastated, in the days when there was no concept of economic justice in evaluating projects such as the Inner Belt. Many residents currently residing in Boston, Brookline and Cambridge may not know much of the Inner Belt. Its history available at:

is relevant to Phase 2 of the Urban Ring’s proposal for the Charles River crossing.

For several months the BU Bridge has been undergoing long neglected repairs, causing serious traffic and transportation problems on both sides of the Charles River, exacerbating long existing traffic and transportation problems. Later this year, it is anticipated that a significant project will be undertaken to address serious structural problems with the BU Bridge that may take well over a year. But there are many other infrastructure issues and future projects in addition to Phase 2 in the area of the BU Bridge that need to be addressed in assessing Phase 2’s Charles River crossing.

1. A large portion of Commonwealth Avenue at the BU Bridge serves as a bridge over the MA Turnpike Extension that has serious structural problems. The B Commonwealth Green Line Branch trolleys are required to slow down to a crawl in passing over this bridge. This would be a major project. Consider the steps required to be taken to minimize traffic flow problems on the Extension and how this would be handled above at the Commonwealth Avenue and BU Bridge area.

2. Boston University’s (BU) Charles River campus has ambitious plans, including creating a “beach” from the northerly side of Commonwealth Avenue (just easterly of the BU Bridge) down to the Charles River (presumably crossing over Storrow Drive) that would eliminate University Road’s currently easy access to and from Storrow Drive East. In addition, BU has its eyes on developing air rights over the Extension, a small segment in Boston just to the west of the BU Bridge, and two huge footprint segments in Brookline south of Commonwealth Avenue between Essex and St. Mary’s Streets, that would introduce complex traffic and transportation issues directly for Boston and Brookline as well as users of the BU Bridge from points north and south. I have suggested elsewhere that perhaps BU had lobbied the Legislature earlier this year for a $4.1 million budget item for a transportation study of this area that might impact its plans.

3. The rotary on the Cambridge side of the BU Bridge is quite complex. EOT has long recognized significant changes would be required to this rotary to accommodate Phase 2’s 60-foot articulated BRT buses in order to be able to utilize the BU Bridge for Phase 2. How might such changes impact Cambridgeport neighborhoods (even assuming that EOT is able to utilize the Grand Junction Rail Line (GJRL) in Cambridge)? Traffic between the rotary and Central Square through narrow streets with parking and various one-way patterns is currently difficult enough.

4. And then there’s Harvard, the institutional elephant in the room with its proposed humongous Allston campus that wants-in to connect to Phase 2 somewhere in the area of the Boston side of the BU Bridge to provide access to Harvard’s burgeoning Longwood Medical Area. While current economic problems have slowed down Harvard’s Allston activities, it would be a long range project in any event, creating significant traffic and transportation issues not only in Allston but at the BU Bridge and thus Brookline and Cambridge for many years.

We all know how long it took to complete the Big Dig and how much it cost. We know that the Big Dig’s Charles River crossing was both difficult and expensive, finally accomplished with a humongous bridge that some, many, consider attractive. Phase 2 of the Urban Ring also has a major Charles River crossing problem. Funding apparently is not available to accomplish using the GJRL bridge under the BU Bridge. In addition, there are significant environmental issues to be addressed in expanding the former as well as legal issues with CSX for its continued freight rail use of the bridge together with continued rail access on the Boston side connecting to Beacon Yards. [ed: The railroad yards which are on the north side of Soldier’s Field Road, extending from Cambridge Street almost to the BU Bridge.]

Perhaps it is time for residents of Brookline, Boston and Cambridge to take a lesson from the days of the threats of the Inner Belt to their communities and demand a halt to EOT’s Phase 2 proposed Charles River crossing. EOT has yet to undertake serious engineering studies/designs for the Charles River crossing. While engineers can do just about anything, the results might not be successful. EOT should be required – and promptly – to come up with such studies/designs to test whether its proposed Charles River crossing will work. While the GJRL bridge under the BU Bridge is “cockamamie,” utilizing the BU Bridge (which may be reduced from 4 lanes to 3 lanes) is “cockamanier;” in fact, it’s NUTS!