A PATH FORWARD FOR CHARLES RIVER UNDERPASSES: Separating “Approaches” from “Tunnels” Removes Barriers

As part of the Accelerated Bridge Program’s (ABP) upgrading of the Charles River bridges, it is important that every intersection along the Dr. Paul Dudley White Bike Path – the route from the Esplanade to Watertown – be made as safe as possible for pedestrians, runners, and bicyclists.  Whether going across the river or along the shore, no matter in which direction, the intersections should feel comfortable for non-motorized use by people of all abilities – in wheelchairs, by foot, on bike, or on skates.

But the surface intersections aren’t the only issue.  It would be possible to create a 7-mile long, traffic-free path if every one of the bridges had an underpass – similar to but better designed and constructed than the existing ones under the Eliot Bridge (which crosses from Harvard’s fields to BB&N).

For several years, a broad coalition of organizations and individuals have pushed MassDOT to include the underpasses in their ABP plans.   Charles River Conservancy has played a leadership role, supported by LivableStreets Alliance and other groups, demanding that the state both create a “tunnel” of some kind within the structure of each bridge, and connect the tunnel to the existing route with entry/exit “approach paths.”

MassDOT has consistently refused.  Their analysis finds that creating the tunnels is do-able, although it would be technically challenging and require some additional costs.  However, going through the multiple agency processes required to secure the permits to create the connecting approach paths would be very complex and take much longer than the Accelerated Bridge Program (ABP) schedule allows.  As a compromise, the MassDOT team working on the bridges did commit to rebuilding the bridges in a way that does not preclude the future creation of the underpasses – although they acknowledge that coming back to build the tunnels at a later date will require complicated, large-scale, and expensive work.

In other words – no underpasses for now.   Which probably means no future underpasses either – it will be very difficult to convince the Legislature to commit the huge sums needed to restructure totally safe bridges that have been so recently repaired, especially when so many dangerous bridges still await attention.  So its now or never.

While the stalemate continues, work on the BU bridge has nearly finished and work on the Anderson (coming out of Harvard Square) has already begun.  But work on the Western Avenue and River Street bridges is still in the early stages.  Since protecting cross-river traffic flow requires that work on them cannot begin until work on the Anderson is nearly complete there is still some time available for design development, at least on the Boston side where underpasses are most technically feasible.

Fortunately, MassDOT’s own analysis suggests a way forward.  If permitting the approach paths is too complicated and time consuming, don’t do them.  Instead, just build the tunnels, at least on the more technically feasible Boston side of the Western Ave and River St bridges.  MassDOT’s own analysis points out that minimal additional permits are needed for the tunnel component.  And, as taxpayers, we note that it will be both simpler and cheaper to build the tunnels as part of the on-going general repairs than to initiate a whole new process sometime in the future.

MassDOT can then spend as long as needed to get the permits and develop designs for the approach paths.  If MassDOT is concerned that leaving the tunnels open will create safety or other hazards, the openings can be temporarily closed off cheaply with plywood or more aesthetically with brick or some other material.  When the time is right, when the approaches are made, the tunnels will be waiting.

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Related previous posts:

GREEN ROUTES TO THE FUTURE: Combining Regional Vision and Local Initiative to Revitalize Urban Transportation and Well-Being

BRIDGES, ROADS & HISTORIC PRESERVATION: Combining Respect for the Past with Preparation for the Future in Transportation

PARKS, GREENWAYS, AND TRANSPORTATION: Increasing Usefulness By Combining Visions

Fixing the Bridges Won’t Solve Traffic Congestion

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