It’s totally understandable that Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey has been focusing on the MBTA fiscal crises. Public transit – train, subway, trolley, bus, and ferry – is the backbone that supports the entire regional transportation system, and the region’s economic well-being.
But we can only hope that the MBTA crisis will not totally pull Secretary Davey away from the highway division. A crucial test of his agency’s commitment to the GreenDOT, WeMove, Healthy Transportation Compact, and Mode Shift policies is now happening around the McGrath/O’Brien Highway Corridor – which MassDOT has designated as a key pilot project that will explore ways to embody these programs and values into transportation planning, including MassDOT’s first use of a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) process maximize the project’s positive impact on public health.
But it seems that without high level intervention, MassDOT is in danger of failing to live up to the Commonwealth’s transportation goals –ending up once again treating car traffic as the controlling priority rather than the larger issues of community well-being and sustainable transportation infrastructure.
The controversy about McGrath/O’Brien has two levels – whether or not to spend up to $11 million to repair the deteriorating McCarthy overpass’s car lanes, and what to recommend as the long-term design for the entire corridor’s roadway system.
Events on both of those levels are precipitating a flurry of advocacy. First was the Highway Division’s request to the MassDOT Board to approve the Overpass repair contract – without going through any meaningful process of public review on the grounds that it is “merely” a short-term maintenance issue, even though the repairs are intended to keep the Highway in use as-is for up to 15 years.
Second was the presentation to the community of MassDOT’s range of options for consideration in the “Grounding McGrath” study to conceptually outline the corridor’s future design – a set of options that continues to prioritize through-travel by cars over reconnecting Somerville’s cut-apart neighborhoods or setting the foundation for local economic growth.
Together, the two events make people wonder if MassDOT is simply going to mouth the words and go through the motions but end up simply repeating its old “cars first” orientation.
HIGHWAYS AND THE ECONOMY
Transportation shapes land use, which then shapes economic development and demographics. When the automobile was the emerging transportation mode in the mid-twentieth century, building highways was seen as laying the foundation for prosperity – as well as the only way to avoid the congestion that comes with growth’s increased traffic.
But we’ve now learned some painful lessons. Cars are no longer the driving force behind new jobs and increased tax revenues. (Trucks are still important – but they constitute only 7.5% of AM peak traffic and 3.55 of PM peak traffic on the McGrath.) There is a tipping point when continued construction of car-centric infrastructure simply amplifies congestion and depresses economic vitality. In fact, around the US – and the world – cities are finding that getting rid of old highways does what building them used to do!
In a new report from the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy(ITDP) and EMBARQ entitled “The End of a Life Cycle,” the authors say:
“…numerous empirical studies and analysis of real world case studies have shown that new road capacity usually induces traffic in direct proportion to the amount of new road space; removing roadways similarly reduces traffic….After decades of building and maintaining urban highways, many cities are choosing to tear them down rather than repair or maintain them…These cities demonstrate the social, economic, and environmental benefits of removal or of reinvesting in other options and opportunities.”
They also note that “when cities took down or chose not to build urban highways, what they got instead was…” significant increases in adjacent property values” and tax revenue, “a sharp reduction in crime,” an addition of many acres of land into active use, “reconnecting” the area, and “a decrease in air and noise pollution.”
What happens to McGrath will shape what happens to Somerville – and lots of other cities and neighborhoods facing similar challenges. See: HOW ROADS SHAPE ECONOMIES: Why What Happens to the McGrath/O’Brien Highway, Sullivan Station, and Rutherford Ave. Will Make – or Break – Local Job Opportunities and Community Well-Being In The Entire Metro Area for Decades to Come
THE “REPAIR” CONTRACT
Like so many old highways, the elevated structures on the McGrath/O’Brien are not in great shape. In particular, the McCarthy overpass, running from near the Cambridge border over the Washington Street intersection to the Medford Street/Highland Avenue turn-off, is beginning to crumble. It’s not yet dangerous for truck traffic, but its close and will require traffic restrictions in the near future.
MassDOT says that they need the repairs to avoid having to restrict truck and/or car traffic from the Highway. But because I-93 provides a better alternative route into Boston, current traffic volumes have dropped over the past decade and are now well below the road’s capacity; it could easily fit within fewer lanes. In addition, the repairs are intended to extend the overpass’s life by up to 15 years – meaning that any effort to replace the Highway with a more appropriate design is effectively put off for at least that long, making a mockery of the current “Grounding McGrath” community-input study that is supposedly planning for the future. Finally, the repair work will do little to change the negative impact of the elevated highway to the health of residents living nearby, the area’s economic vitality and the dangerous lack of pedestrian, transit or bicycling accommodations in the corridor.
As a result, going forward with the repair work is opposed by nearly all the local stakeholders – community groups, business representatives, advocates, and even the city of Somerville. LivableStreets Alliance sent the Secretary a formal letter requesting the money be used, instead, to further the long-term alternatives study, begin the demolition process, create short-term multi-modal alternatives, and begin the design process of the desired future corridor layout. So everyone was caught by surprise when the MassDOT Board of Directors was asked to approve of a Notice To Proceed to a contractor for the “repair” work. Community advocates were not even informed by Mass DOT that an RFP had been issued to procure bids to repair the Overpass. No one appeared to oppose the Mass DOT plans because no one knew it was happening!
THE “GROUNDING MCGRATH” STUDY ALTERNATIVES
Some single-occupancy vehicles (SOVs) do leave I-93 in Somerville just before the HOV lane reduces the number of lanes available to them, using McGrath/O’Brien Highway as an alternative. And the Inner Belt/Brick Bottom/East Somerville area is likely to experience significant residential and commercial growth in future years – meaning more people will be moving in and out of the area. However, it is not inevitable that this translates into more (single occupancy) car trips – the Green Line extension will eventually get built and if an adequate pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure is in place it is likely that a meaningful share of those trips will be non-motorized. Furthermore, if MassDOT is to live up to its own sustainable values, should it design roads that pander to SOV travel?
Today, McGrath/O’Brien now carries about the same amount of traffic as Mass Avenue in north Cambridge. Most of the cars are going relatively short distances, using the Highway to move within Somerville or from Somerville into Cambridge. Why not create a road – and a surrounding business/residential environment – that mirrors that area? Through traffic should be possible, but – as on Mass Ave – subject to the needs of the neighborhood-connecting cross-streets.
A quick glance at a street map shows that the McGrath/O’Brien Highway was shoved through what was once a series of city streets – Medford Street connecting with Somerville Avenue connecting with Cambridge Street – with a variety of intersecting streets. The section of the corridor between the Medford/Highland intersection and Broadway runs through the kind of dense residential area that was disrupted and destroyed. Local residents and advocates have urged MassDOT to return the corridor that that kind of layout.
But the “Grounding McGrath” study doesn’t seem open to even considering that option. The staff’s clearly preferred option is a six-lane major arterial. The only downsized alternative they are willing to study is a slightly smaller “boulevard” that still prioritizes speedy through traffic over local connections – although this would, at least, include some adjoining bike paths and trees. And this is explicitly only being included in order to show that it won’t work – that it will result in “unacceptable” traffic delays or unwanted diversions into neighborhood streets given MassDOT’s estimates of car numbers in 2035.
Traffic models are notorious for over-estimating future car volumes. Even assuming the accuracy of the estimation models being used, it’s not clear that today’s travel patterns will continue to control vehicle choices as gas prices rise and cultural values change. In fact, real-world experience shows that if traffic volumes expend – and decrease – in response to the amount of infrastructure available. Another international study on reductions of road capacity in 70 projects in 10 countries found that traffic was reduced by over 10% even accounting for the traffic on neighboring streets. Many cities in the US have had similar experiences. If you build a highway cars will flow into it until it is full. If you remove – or don’t build – a highway, drivers will go away – or just not use their cars in the first place! The same is true for bike lanes and bus routes and sidewalks. Congestion is not solved by construction.
If MassDOT builds another highway, or even a robust “arterial”, it will eventually fill up. But small amounts of mode change can have huge impacts. Experience in Los Angeles shows that shifting only 3% of SOV drivers to other modes reduced congestion by nearly 15%. If MassDOT fulfills its own goals of creating a transportation system that invites walking, bicycling, and transit and doesn’t try to anticipate future increases in car volume, it is likely that those future increases won’t happen.
Even better, the economic impact of a city street design could fuel Somerville prosperity for years to come. For the past half century, the presence of the Highway has condemned much of the corridor to a limited set of development options – essentially, to car-dependent businesses. A slower, more neighborhood-friendly layout could unleash a flood of small scale innovation that will bring jobs, cultural activity, and permanent residents to the area.
MOVING FORWARD OR FALLING BACK?
One of the most innovative parts of the 2009 Transportation Reform act was the Healthy Transportation Compact. This section of the law establishing MassDOT requires the new agency to work towards the “the coordination of land use, transportation, and public health policy” to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve access to services for persons with mobility limitations, increase opportunities for physical activities” as well as “increase bicycle and pedestrian travel” and “implement the use of health impact assessments to determine the effect of transportation projects on public health and vulnerable populations.”
Health Impact Assessments (HIAs) are a powerful tool that allows planners to evaluate the impact of policies, programs, and construction projects on public health – and to build in ways to tilt that impact towards the positive.
But the Healthy Transportation Compact defines a way of thinking about, designing, and operating a transportation system that is extremely different from the “make it as much like a highway as possible” values that shaped our nation’s transportation agencies for the past century. Understanding the complexity of such a radical cultural transformation, MassDOT chose the McGrath/O’Brien project as an opportunity to pilot the new approach. Grounding McGrath is supposed to institutionalize the agency’s new approach (originally piloted with the Charles River bridge redesign work) of inviting public input starting with the conceptualization stages of a project. It is also the first place that MassDOT will use a HIA to inform – and hopefully influence – its design.
But it seems that the McGrath/O’Brien effort will not be the transformative process that MassDOT leaders envisioned. The rush to repair rather than replace the McCarthy Overpass and the car-centric priorities of the options being put on the table in the Grounding McGrath study makes a mockery of the public input process and drains the HIA of its potential. If car travel level of service is the defining parameter of the project, then all the HIA can do is suggest ways to blow the resulting pollution upwards, like the giant smoke stacks on mid-western coal plants; to prevent the noise from penetrating too far into the surrounding neighborhoods, at best using trees rather than “highway walls”; to mitigate the economically depressing effect of a highway, or even of an “arterial boulevard”. If a “given” of the project is to maximize car traffic “level of service” – in effect, simply moving the highway to ground level (even if it is called a “boulevard”) – then a HIA can’t really address the issues of community social fabric or family prosperity that a more “connect the neighborhoods” approach would provide. A public health professional should be embarrassed to have their name on such a distorted analysis.
LEADERSHIP ATTENTION IS AN ORGANIZATION’S MOST VALUABLE ASSET
Secretary Davey, like his predecessor, Jeff Mullan, has a well-earned reputation for innovation, honesty, and concern for sustainability. As the recent series of public hearings on the MBTA crisis shows, he is also politically smart.
It is apparent that now is a critical period for the Secretary to focus on developing long term financing for transportation solutions for the entire Commonwealth. However, this should not obscure DOT’s commitment to the GreenDOT, WeMove, Healthy Transportation Compact, and Mode Shift policies – rather, it should be to enable these 21st century transportation vision. However, it’s unlikely that the T’s fiscal crisis will be solved unless done as part of creating a sustainable state-wide overall transportation financing strategy, including new revenue. It is true that building public awareness of the catastrophic results of the MBTA fiscal crisis is a vital part of the effort. But, unfortunately, that is not a short-term effort — even if all the currently proposed fare increases and cut backs are implemented there will be an even bigger shortfall next year! So fiscal issues are likely to dominate the Secretary’s agenda for a long time.
We can only hope that he finds some time to refocus on the McGrath/O’Brien corridor. It could be the start of a new era. Or it could simply signal the continuation of the old one.
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