Parkways Moving Forward: DCR is Not The Highway Department

It’s a pleasure to be able to praise a government agency: civil servants who try to live up to their public service mission are over-worked and underpaid relative to private sector peers – and always under appreciated! It’s particularly a pleasure to praise the Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR), a woefully underfunded agency whose roadway department has been exasperatingly difficult to work with in the past.   Which is why we have to hope that newly inaugurated Governor Baker’s announcement of a freeze on hiring and contracting will not derail DCR’s historic commitment to create an updated Master conceptual Plan for how their metro-region parkways can reclaim their Olmstedian heritage and be once again made more park-like and more bike-and-pedestrian-friendly — as well as estimates of what it would cost to properly operate such a system.

However, even in the midst of the freeze and while the Agency waits to hear who will be appointed to be its next Commissioner, there should be no delay in beginning to fulfill the promise to also make DCR’s prioritization and decision-making processes better able to incorporate community and stakeholder suggestions. The newly formed Urban Paths and Parkways Advisory Committee (UPPAC) is an obvious way to draw on the expertise of people who often know more about both local needs and national best-practices than DCR’s own too-small and over-burdened road engineering staff.

In addition, even if budget constraints slow down DCR’s recent string of successful capital projects, the Agency should move forward on its decision to re-think its approach to Parkway maintenance – incorporating the new vision into repaving and striping is a low-cost way of making meaningful improvements even when funding for big project is unavailable.

There is a palpable enthusiasm among people around the region at the prospect of a full, safe network of Greenways reaching out from the urban core to the entire metro area. Although DCR’s new direction was announced in the final days of the Patrick Administration little action has occurred. The incoming state leaders can easily take over and treat them as their own.   And if they do, they will find a lot of people eager to work with them.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

DCR was created in 2003 by our last Republican Governor, Mitt Romney, through the merger of the old Metropolitan District Commission with the state-wide Department of Environmental Management. The combined agency is the Commonwealth’s largest landowner, in charge not only of nearly 450,000 acres of parks and forests but also of reservoirs (e.g. Quabbin), watersheds, over 90 beaches, 29 campgrounds – as well as nearly 40 pools, 350 dams and locks, over 110 playgrounds and ballfields, dozens of bridges and tunnels, and around 500 lane miles of roads. It’s MassParks Department is considered one of the best run state systems in the nation. Despite its huge and growing responsibilities the agency’s capital budget has been in a long-term decline, dropping nearly in half despite a couple of very welcome recent infusions.

DCR is the current repository of our region’s historic Olmsted-Eliot heritage of greenways, parks, woodland reservations, river banks, paths – the Fells, Emerald Necklace, Blue Hills, Esplanade, and more that gives our region so much of its desirable character. In recent years, DCR has focused on upgrading its off-road paths – along the Charles and Alewife, on the Cape, and elsewhere. The recently announced master planning initiative is a chance to reclaim that legacy for the Parkway component of the DCR portfolio. For too long these linear parks have been treated merely as alternative highways, with priority repeatedly given to moving as many cars as fast as possible. We now know that this approach makes roads unsafe for everyone, including car occupants, while undermining many other policy goals needed for a sustainable and healthy region.

DESIGN IS JUST THE START

Key to the success of DCR’s vital re-orientation project is the identification of both capital and operational costs for the revitalized facilities – not only what it will cost to revamp but what it will cost to maintain. One factor causing DCR’s past treatment of its parkways to fall so far behind the times is that the under-sized staff needs, like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, to keep running simply in order to stay in the same place. There is no time to re-think how a road might be restriped or an intersection improved, even if the effort would have negligible cost – just repaint what’s already there.

But money isn’t the only issue. In recent years, most of DCR’s leadership has been trying to develop better stakeholder relationships with a revived Stewardship Council as well as with “Friends of….” and advocacy groups. In contrast, the parkway department seems stuck in a car-centric time warp; still acting as if it were the 1950s and the Agency was trying to turn itself into an alternative highway department – an approach whose conservation-embarrassing symbol is the DCR-built Bowker Overpass which defaces an entire section of the Emerald Necklace. Parkways may carry traffic and play an important role in our transportation system, but treating them like just another arterial is neither necessary nor appropriate. Even the outgoing Secretary of Energy and Environment Affairs, which oversees DCR, publicly admitted that DCR’s roadway design and maintenance practices needed to change.

The proposed study promises change. However, a remaining legacy is the agency’s nervousness. The swimming pool disaster a few years ago, in which a child drowned in a DCR-run pool but whose body wasn’t noticed in the filthy water for several days, continues to haunt the place. In transportation, even the agency’s planning staff seem worried that doing anything short of a huge, capital-intensive ownership-boundary-to-ownership-boundary project will leave them vulnerable to accusations of malfeasance if anything bad happens to anyone. In fact, an all-or-nothing approach guarantees that nothing will get done. As cities around the country have learned, it is possible and desirable to incrementally improve a transportation corridor – making it safer and more inviting to pedestrians and cyclists as well as still functional for necessary car travel – while accepting that further improvements remain to be done.

INPUT BY COMMITTEE, ACTION BY AGENCY

DCR is in the wonderful position of having a stakeholder community that wants it to succeed. The agency’s mission “to protect, promote and enhance our common wealth of natural, cultural and recreational resources for the well-being of all” is central to our region’s economic and environmental health. In transportation, DCR’s parkway system is an essential part of the envisioned metro-area Greenway Network: a seamless network of non-motorized recreational and transportation corridors suitable for people of all ages and abilities walking, hiking, running, bicycling, and skating. (Both “inner ring” and “region-wide” coalitions are currently working towards this vision.) As Boston’s efforts to become more bike-friendly revive from a new-Administration pause, DCR’s parkways will also become central to the realization of the city’s Complete Streets, Bicycle Network, and Urban Mobility plans. And, somewhat appropriately, the Boston Olympic Committee’s hopes for a “car free games” will require extensive use of Olmsted’s old network.

But, of course, given the fiscal and political realities of our times, none of this will happen without continued vigilance and input from the Advocacy community. A broad coalition of groups have worked together to bring things this far: MassBike, WalkBoston, Boston Cyclists Union (BCU), Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), LivableStreets Alliance (full disclosure: I’m a founding Board member), and lots of city and project committees around the region.   DCR has agreed to periodic (maybe 2x or 3x/yr) big public meetings, regular meetings (maybe 4x or 5x/yr) with the entire Urban Path and Parkway Advisory Group, the creation of subcommittees (authorized to meet with or without DCR staff present) to come up with proposals around issues such as Public Input Processes, Project Prioritization Criteria and Data Gathering, Scope and Hiring Criteria for the Master Plan contract, and Early Action and Maintenance Opportunities.  They even offered to include stakeholder representatives as participating observers when they interview consultants for the Master Plan contract.

It is now up to the stakeholders to maintain their involvement – including supporting DCR’s future requests for additional resources. But a corner has been turned. And DCR deserves praise!

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Thanks to David Loutzenheiser and Andreae Downs for comments on previous versions. All opinions are, of course, my own responsibility.

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