Monday, February 08, 2010

MassDOT meeting concerning the River Street and Western Avenue Bridges

1. Introductory.
2. Western Avenue and River Street bridges in context.
3. Location of Meeting.
4. Meeting.
A. General, state plans.
B. Anti-environment lobby comments.
C. My Comments.
D. Marilyn’s Comments.
E. The Cambridge pol comments.
5. Summary.

Bob La Trémouille reports.

1. Introductory.

Last Wednesday evening, February 3, The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) conducted a public presentation concerning bridge repairs on the next two bridges to the west of the nearly 30 year habitat of the Charles River White Geese.

This is a very preliminary report. Marilyn will follow with a better report.

2. Western Avenue and River Street bridges in context.

These bridges are the Western Avenue bridge and the River Street Bridge. The Western Avenue bridge connects Western Avenue in Cambridge to Western Avenue in the Allston neighborhood of Boston. The River Street bridge connects River Street in Cambridge to Cambridge Street in Allston.

On the Cambridge side, River Street and Western Avenue connect at Central Square in Cambridge forming a very large, elongated triangle. On the Allston side, Western Avenue connects to Arsenal Street in Watertown. Western Avenue is now very easily 50% owned by Harvard University. Cambridge Street connect to Union Square Allston and then ends at Brighton Center, with Caritas St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center to its south and the Brighton branch of the Boston Police Department on its North. Brighton Center is to the west.

The other key streets impacted by these bridges are Memorial Drive on the Cambridge side of the Charles River and Soldiers Field Road with access roads on the Boston / Allston side of the Charles River. River Street is one way northbound to Central Square; Western Avenue is one way south bound from Central Square. The two combine with the bridges and an access road to the south of Soldiers’ Field Road which is one way east bound in this area to form a massive traffic circle. Direct ramps to and from Soldiers’ Field Road and to and from the Massachusetts Turnpike combine to make this a very complicated traffic arrangement.

In spite of the complexities, the system works quite well.

The 30 year habitat habitat of the Charles River White Geese is centered on the BU Bridge, the next bridge to the east of these bridges. It extends to the west about half the distance to the River Street Bridge.

3. Location of Meeting.

The meeting was conducted at the Allston Branch of the Boston Public Library on North Harvard Street between Western Avenue and Cambridge Street, about half a mile or a mile distant from the complicated intersection and bridges. Cambridge has two school facilities with auditoriums which are probably closer to this massive intersection / bridge arrangement.

4. Meeting.

A. General, state plans.

The state presented a number of plans of the area. In sharp contrast to the BU Bridge project, this project seems to have negligible impact on the environment and on local animals.

The state plans would appear to have negligible change in which is a well working interchange. The just will rebuild the two quite old bridges to ensure that they live another 75 years. They hope to add bike lanes if that is feasible.

B. Anti-environment lobby comments.

The destructiveness comes from the developer lobby.

One well organized bunch of lobbyists wants to add a small vehicle highway under the bridges impacting the Charles River with some sort of connection to Memorial Drive.

The successor to the Friends of Magazine Beach, the Charles River Conservancy supports this destructiveness and asks that its own contribution to environmental destruction in the area be continued. That is a bunch of lights at the water level which destroy night time habitat for resident animals, birds and fish. These have been added in recent years.

C. My Comments.

I objected to the light pollution and encouraged the state to rebuild in an historically responsible way and environmentally responsible way, without the lights. I omitted the highway addition out of oversight.

I did ask that signs be added to the River Street bridge to correct incompetent design by the predecessor agency, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, formerly the Metropolitan District Commission.

They, in the Boston tradition, keep the traffic direction on the bridge secret from those riding on it. This is common in the City of Boston. By keeping the traffic direction secret from those traveling in the legal direction, Boston makes their one way streets safer for wrong way drivers.

The impact on the River Street bridge is that the left lane, the lane the wrong way traffic would be coming, sees much less use than the middle and right lane, perhaps 50% less because a lot of people do not know they are on a one way street.

A few people do attempt to turn left onto Memorial Drive from the middle lane. It is impossible to tell if this is because of the bad signage or simply Massachusetts driving.

If MassDOT shows a minimal level of competence, in contrast to the predecessor agencies, a few signs, as required by highway sign standards, can be located at the southern end of the bridge identifying this one way street as a one way street. These signs would correct the lane use oddities and give the illegal left turn people one less excuse.

D. Marilyn’s Comments.

The Charles River parkland was created a hundred years ago explicitly to give us humans continued access to a rural landscape as the cities expanded. It was to be our refuge from city life—including the press of our fellow humans—a place to restore the human body and spirit.

This remains its primary function, but you’d never know that from comments at the DOT meeting.

Years ago automobile enthusiasts got huge sections of parkland paved over for Storrow Drive, Soldiers Field Road, Memorial Drive, Greenough Boulevard—so-called parkways that are actually limited access highways. Now the very people who deplore what the auto has done to our health and the environment want to pave over much of what remains for limited access highways for cyclists. For the River Street, Western Ave., and Anderson Bridges they want underpasses for cyclists through the abutments. The underpasses would require redesign of structures on the National Register of Historic Places, realignment of existing pavement on both sides of the river, and chew up yet more parkland at the bridges themselves.

The DCR is steward of this land. In return for fees from the Head of the Charles and its concessionaires, the DCR has caused acres of public parkland to disappear into the river as its own and others’ vehicles churn landfill back into marsh and the overcut banks erode. So it’s no surprise the DCR’s booster club, the Charles River Conservancy, favors the underpasses and additional paving.

The CRC’s ornamental lighting of the bridges pollutes the nighttime environment. In response to comments about that, the lighting designer said they add less than 1000 kilowatts. When asked after the meeting if that meant they didn’t contribute to light pollution, he repeated the figure, then pointed to light pollution from street lights and declared himself happy with his work.

The DCR official at the meeting made a confused and/or confusing point, the gist of which was that DOT work on the Charles River bridges enjoys exemption from environmental review, but the DCR was handicapped in having to go before Conservation Commissions for work when the bridges were under their control. (As we know, DCR plans still govern the work at the BU Bridge and gratuitously destroy the environment there.)

At the time and afterwards I have tried to understand the point.

The DCR itself invoked Chapter 91 for its work at the BU Bridge, to exempt itself from the Cambridge ConCom’s powers to protect habitat at the goose meadow. When the DCR’s contractor illegally began work there on August 25, 2009 without the required notice to the ConCom, the ConCom stopped the work. In short order, however, it allowed work to resume, even though the DCR still lacked the Ch. 91 license—the Governor did not sign it until September 30, 2009.

For the BU Bridge the DCR chose a stormwater system that destroys most of the goose meadow. It has not chosen that system for the River Street and Western Avenue bridges. When I asked the DCR official why, he shrugged his shoulders. (When I asked why the CRC supports paving over more parkland, he said it has “a more European vision” for the river.)

If the DCR has labored under some handicap to comply with the Wetlands Protection Act I have failed to see it. In addition to this most recent example of illegality at the BU Bridge, there has been the illegal destruction of the goose meadow in 1999, the destruction of habitat falsely said not to exist at Magazine Beach, the failure of the 2004 "restoration" there to protect water quality and the 2008-09 installation of chemically-maintained commercial sod.

Given all this I wonder:

1. why we should think the DCR is more environmentally responsible than DOT;
2. why we should feel sorry for the DCR if it has been held to a higher standard;
3. why the DCR thinks it's held to a higher standard since it routinely circumvents, flouts, or gets a pass on whatever regulations the Cambridge ConCom might enforce; and
4. why the Cambridge ConCom routinely gives the DCR a pass on the repeated violations of the Wetlands Protection Act on the Charles River. Friends of the White Geese have documented these violations at ConCom meetings through the years, beginning in 2000.

On the last point, I remember the Mass. Audubon official who told me the then-MDC broke the law all the time and Mass Audubon couldn’t go after them on everything. Yes, it’s important to choose your battles. Yet the DCR’s free run on the Charles River in Cambridge is quite remarkable. It has gotten passes from Mass Audubon, the Cambridge ConCom, the Accelerated Bridge Program, and our elected officials.

Can we expect to lose yet more parkland to DCR development? Preserving the land costs little. Infrastructure development costs a lot.

E. The Cambridge pol comments.

Councilor Davis and Representative Walz demonstrated striking arrogance.

Last year, the DCR conducted two meetings on the BU Bridge repairs on the BU campus and one in Kendall Square. The Kendall Square meeting was further from the site than the BU campus meetings.

The reason was obvious.

The BU Bridge repairs involve needless environmental destruction and needless increase in harm to the Charles River White Geese. No mediation was proposed and none was implemented.

I objected loudly.

Walz and Davis are long fighters for heartless animal abuse and environmental destruction in the BU Bridge area. The were silent with a wink and a nod.

They are also silent with a wink and a nod to the pending destruction in Cambridge of hundreds of healthy trees and animal habitat between the BU Bridge and the second bridge to the east.

Davis was there last Wednesday. She went from “neutrality” loudly objected to the failure to locate the INCONSEQUENTIAL meetings on these two bridges in Cambridge.

She went from “neutrality” to a bad location for neetings when there is involved heartless animal abuse and environmental destruction involved, which she supports to objecting to a bad location when the meetings are inconsequential.

Walz has distributed emails objecting to the location.

5. Summary.

More lying about which side they are on by the pols.

The developer lobby works closely with them.

The pols want the irresponsible behavior from Magazine Beach to the east buried.

The pols want to get the destructiveness of the developer lobby implemented.

The pols want to lie to the voters about which side they are on.