TODAY’S NEWS: MassDOT Administrator Resigns; BU Bridge Complaint

One of LivableStreets Alliance’s first campaigns, soon after the group was founded five years ago, was to push a then-resistant Boston Traffic Department to include improved bike facilities on a redesigned Commonwealth Avenue in the area around the BU Bridge.  It was a last-minute effort, and would have gotten nowhere except for the willingness of newly appointed Highway Commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky’s willingness to stick her neck out and require everyone involved to get into the same room and talk things through.  The result wasn’t all that we wanted, but it was a lot better than what would have happened otherwise.

Now, as MassDOT Highway Division Administrator Paiewonsky leaves the state agency, the BU Bridge area is again in the news.  The two parts of this post start with headlines from this week’s Boston Globe:

“State Highway Commissioner Paiewonsky resigns” (Boston Globe; 1/14/11)

and

“BU bridge lane configuration is temporary” (Boston Globe, 1/17/11)

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“State Highway Commissioner Paiewonsky resigns” (Boston Globe; 1/14/11)

Sometimes you just like someone.  I didn’t always agree with her.  And I sometimes wished she would push harder to move the state Highway Department towards the goals of multi-modal friendliness enunciated in the award-winning “Highway Design Guidelines” whose creation she led a couple years ago.  But from the first time I met her on the Minuteman Bike path, I liked Luisa Paiewonsky.

The need to deal with a family medical situation has led to her resignation as Administrator of the new MassDOT’s Highway Division.  But I hope, for all our sakes, that someday, in some way, after the pain and the healing, she returns.  She has integrity, strong values, and – maybe because she’s so short that she never learned to be intimidating – an amazing willingness to listen to “outsiders” and even change directions when she realized that her department’s actions could be significantly improved.  The most recent example was her high-risk decision to stop planning work for the Longfellow Bridge, convene a broadly-representative stakeholder’s Task Force, and significantly incorporate many of the new suggestions into official plans.

Yes, I know that a significant reason this happened is because of the enormous political pressure advocates created (including, I am proud to say, from LivableStreets Alliance).  And Yes, I know that we are still fighting with MassDOT about many crucial elements of the bridge design.  But the fact is that we are having that fight.  In public.  And it is not (yet) a totally done deal.

I – and other advocates for Complete Streets – can only hope that whomever Transportation Secretary Mullan selects as her replacement has the same willingness to work with others, the ability to effectively run the expanded Highway Department, and a deep commitment to completing the job of making every street a model of multi-modal friendliness with maximum possible accommodations for walking, bicycling, and transit.

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“BU bridge lane configuration is temporary” (Boston Globe, 1/17/11)

I’ve watched the traffic around the BU bridge nearly every day for over 30 years.  It’s been a mess for the entire time.  Over the past decade or so, congestion has not only engulfed the rotary on the Cambridge side but also crept down from the Western Ave. bridge (which is the major route from both sides of the river to the Mass Pike entrance) along Memorial Drive and even along Putnam Ave one block further inland.  The Memorial Drive back-ups have overflowed from rush hour and now last from late afternoon through early evening.  These problems long preceded the current repair work on the bridge.

The trouble is not getting over the bridge but getting to it or away from it through the messed up intersections on either side.  The Cambridge rotary and its radiating roads expand and contract the number of lanes, causing back-ups at each transition.  The Commonwealth Ave./MassPike Overpass mess is a jumble of confused jurisdictions and dangerously poor design – including the bizarrely timed pedestrian lights and street markings that almost require people to disobey if they are to get across.  It’s a good thing that the bridge-repair problems have forced the state to pay for police details – otherwise nothing would get through.  But until these on/off problems are addressed, while we will no longer have to worry about people (or cars) falling into the river, traffic over the BU Bridge will continue to back up.

Right now, the need to close the upstream lanes on the bridge for repair forces cars coming from the Cambridge side to make an extremely tight right-angle turn in an extremely narrow space to get on to the bridge.  It forces cars to make a full stop, then move very slowly – the resulting backup is driving everyone crazy.  Fortunately, this problem will go away when the upstream lanes are re-opened a couple months from now.

MassDOT’s current plan for the final on-bridge layout includes three traffic lanes in a “one lane on, two lanes off” design – meaning that in each direction cars will have two lanes from the mid-point to the exit point, which will provide plenty of “storage space” for cars waiting for green lights at the exits.  The entry from the Cambridge side has always been functionally one lane wide, and the Boston approach that most people use (coming from Commonwealth Ave) has been one lane since Commonwealth Ave was reconstructed.  Standard bicycle lanes will be painted outside the car lanes in both directions.

Several critics of this plan have said that reducing the bridge from the former 4 traffic lanes (2 in each direction) to three will continue the construction-period back-ups.  They imply, or explicitly state, that the core problem is the addition of the bike lanes, and they sometimes seem to emotionally link the current traffic mess with the future bike facilities.  Why favor a few hundred cyclists over the thousands of car drivers, they ask.  Why not put the bikes on the sidewalks?

Of course, we know from experience in hundreds of other locations that if bike lanes are installed the number of cyclists will dramatically increase.  We know that, unless the bridge sidewalk is significantly widened and the slope on the upstream side of the Cambridge ramp is significantly reduced, it is very dangerous to put pedestrians and bicyclists on the same narrow path – or to force non-elite cyclists into the middle of traffic that is accelerating to get up that slope on to the bridge.  Most of all, we know that the real issue is not traffic on the bridge but at either end.

MassDOT is including the bike lanes not because they’ve been forced into it by obnoxious bike advocates demanding special treatment at the expense of the car-driving majority.  State and federal policy requires that our transportation system move towards a more multi-modal infrastructure.  The 1996 Massachusetts’ Bike/Ped Law, the “Healthy Transportation Compact” component of the transportation reform act that created MassDOT, the state and federal laws requiring reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, MassDOT’s own Highway Design Guide and GreenDOT policies – all require exactly this kind of design, even if there still are some people at MassDOT (and in the public) who wish it were otherwise.

It sometimes feels like critics are angry about traffic delays and are looking for something to blame.  But blaming bicyclists for past, current, or future delays is simply inaccurate – and even makes for poor scapegoating.  Instead, everyone who wants to reduce traffic back-ups around the BU Bridge should join forces to demand that the state and city find a better way to get people from Boston on to the Mass Pike and fix both the dysfunctional layout of the traffic circle on the Cambridge side and the entire Commonwealth Ave./MassPike Overpass intersection on the Boston side.

Ever since work began on the BU Bridge, LivableStreets Alliance has been urging MassDOT to include those bottlenecks in their repair program.  Several preliminary proposals were developed by different people, but it is still not clear that these off-bridge congestion creators will be fully addressed in the near future.  Several years ago, before the creation of MassDOT united the State Highway and MassPike staffs and before Mayor Menino’s conversion to Complete Streets, there was an attempt to bring people together to at least deal with the Boston-side tangle.  Perhaps it is time to try again.

Related posts:

If you take it away, they go away

Fixing the bridges won’t solve traffic congestion

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