CHARLES RIVER BRIDGES FALL OFF THE SCHEDULE: State Needs To Find Funds Without Skimping on Surrounding Improvements

While work on the Longfellow and Anderson bridges is moving forward, plans for repairing and upgrading the in-between River Street and Western Avenue bridges and the messed-up intersections leading to them on both sides of the Charles River have suddenly disappeared from MassDOT’s Accelerated Bridge Program (ABP) agenda.  The bridge’s structural deficiencies are still there as are the approach roads’ deficiencies (have you ever tried crossing as a pedestrian in any direction from the DoubleTree?).   MassDOT, DCR, consultants, advocates (including the efforts of LivableStreets Alliance’s “Better Bridges” campaign), legislators, and community members have spent years worth of time negotiating, adjusting, and finally agreeing on a plan that would be a huge improvement to both safety and functionality, including physically separated bicycle lanes (“cycle tracks”) and much improved pedestrian crossings especially on the Boston side.  Designs are complete, permits are obtained, and contracts are ready to go.  But another funding source has not yet been identified. And MassDOT has indicated that, because other projects in the area will cause traffic problems, construction would not be able to begin until after 2019 in any case.  Still, despite this worrisome setback, this may be an opportunity to make the plans even better.

The Advocates and Community members’ main focus was on insisting that the new bridge designs include safe and ample facilities for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as smoothing car travel AND that the project extend beyond the bridge edge to include the adjoining intersections and approach roads.  Prioritizing the surface-level layout was based on the need to fix problems in already existing facilities.  (Which makes one wonder what is being done with the bridges in other parts of the state where there are fewer or no advocates to push for more forward-thinking visions!)  However, the Charles River bridge agreements notably left out the idea of further improving non-motorized travel along the river by fixing the remaining seriously deteriorated sections of path along both sides of the river, as well as  creating underpasses at each of the bridges – the later an idea that the Charles River Conservancy (CRC) came to champion.  The CRC has commissioned technical studies and renderings showing that the underpasses are both technically feasible and would cost relatively little if done at the same time as the bridge repair work.


MassDOT’s original reason for not including the Underpasses was that the many permits needed – from the US Army Corp of Engineers, various Conservation Commissions, and (most problematically) the notoriously uncooperative Mass Historical (preservation) Commission – could not be secured in time for the Accelerated Bridge Project deadline of 2016.  Moving the River/Western bridge work out of the ABP removes that scheduling problem.

As part of the negotiations around the Charles River bridges, MassDOT did agree to not repair the bridges in ways that would make the future creation of underpasses impossible.  Unfortunately, MassDOT’s official explanation of why work on the River and Western bridges is being delayed claims that ensuring the possibility of an underpass on the Anderson Bridge – coupled with the need to not start on these two bridges until work on the Longfellow and Anderson is complete – is what pushed the completion date too far beyond the ABP 2016 deadline.

It’s likely that adjusting the Anderson plans did make things for complicated.  However, rumors are circulating that this is a face-saving obfuscation.  If MassDOT had started talking with the Anderson contractor earlier in the process there would have been plenty of time to incorporate the needed changes.  According to the rumors, the real reason for delay is that the Mass Historical Commission has insisted that the contractor use a particular type of old-fashion, hand-made brick – and that several (maybe as many as 4) efforts by the only company able to produce these replica artifacts have failed to produce bricks with both the needed appearance and strength for the job.  Rather than take on the Historical Commission’s contentious Executive Director and possibly her boss, Secretary of State Galvin, as well, MassDOT is using the underpasses as its covering story.

The worst scenario would be if MassDOT decides to fall back on its old plans to just do the minimal needed safety-related repairs on the bridges themselves.  This may prevent additional parts of the bridge facade falling into the water – a non-trivial accomplishment! – but won’t do anything to improve regional transportation.  Getting the Charles River bridge work back on track, with the inclusion of both the river-side paths and the underpasses, is what is needed – but making that happen will require a united effort of the broadest possible coalition of agency leaders, advocates, community members and elected officials.   Starting now.



On August 1, 2007, the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed, killing 13 people and injuring 145.  Quickly, the media revealed that tens of thousands of bridges across the country were also structurally deficient, 543 in Massachusetts.  The following year, Governor Deval Patrick made Massachusetts one of the first states to respond to this crisis , and to launch an economic stimulus program after the financial industry collapse, by creating the $3  billion, eight-year Accelerated Bridge Program (ABP).   The Charles River bridges (Craigie Dam at the Science Museum, Longfellow, Boston University, River, Western, and Anderson at Harvard Square) are among those to be repaired at a total cost of about $400 million.

At first, both MassDOT and the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) – the state agencies initially responsible for the bridge repair work – planned to simply repair the bridges as they were, with no changes to the current design or functionality.  But Advocates, with recently formed LivableStreets Alliance taking the lead, pointed out that major infrastructure like bridges only get worked on once every 50 to 70 years, and the state should not squander this historic opportunity to make improvements not only to the bridge itself but to the approaches on either side which were often a major cause of traffic congestion and accidents.  The public’s transportation needs and expectations had changed since those bridges were built a lifetime (or two) ago – with a huge demand for improved safety not only for cars but also pedestrians, cyclists, and transit vehicles (and their passengers).


DCR, the first agency to begin ABP work was initially taken aback by the Advocates pressure but, despite continuing resistance from some of their Traffic Engineers, Agency leaders quickly realized the value of adopting a broader vision.  And even after responsibility for most ADP work was transferred to MassDOT as part of the 2009 Transportation Reform Act, that proactive perspective (combined with the environmental demands of the state’s 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act and the Healthy Transportation Compact requirements of the 2009 Reform Act) continued to shape official policy.

By this past August (2013), MassDOT had repaired or replaced 259 bridges across the Commonwealth, reducing the number of structurally deficient bridges by about 20%.  The fact that over 80% of the deficient bridges have not yet been repaired is a small indication of how huge the problem remains.  Coupled with the state’s desperate need to expand commuter rail, MBTA, and regional bus services the state has a nearly $12 billion shortfall in needed transportation investment. However, in the recent past, anti-government and anti-tax sentiment made it impossible for the state Legislature to authorize significantly increasing spending, instead demanding “reform before revenue” and including cost-efficiency reporting requirements in the 2009 Transportation Reform Act.  In partial response, MassDOT has been extremely proud of its use of innovative construction techniques and brags that its ABP efforts are “on budget and on time.”

All of which helps explain why MassDOT would rather drop the River and Western Bridges from the ABP than try to extend the schedule.  In addition, MassDOT is bound by the “regional equity” provisions that the Legislature included in various appropriation bills.  (The non-metro members of our geographically-driven legislature feel that Boston, and the Charles, get more than its share of funds and attention.) In addition, some advocates feel that the money needed for the underpasses would be better spent on fixing the Dr. Paul Dudley White Bike Path and the Cambridge-side sidewalks.

It’s unlikely that any huge ABP-II program will be announced on the heels of the controversial Transportation Bond Bill or during the last months of the Patrick Administration.  But fixing these heavily used and functionally deficient bridges at the entrance to the Mass Pike is a necessity that can’t be put off.   Turning that necessity into government action will require pulling together a broad coalition and developing an effective media campaign.  It’s time to start.


Thanks to Jessica Parson and Jeff Rosenberg  for comments on earlier drafts.


Previous related postings:

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

LEGACY TIME: Styles and Strategies for the Political Administration End Game


MassDOT’S HEALTHY TRANSPORTATION POLICY DIRECTIVE: Framing Economic Needs as Public Health Measures Strengthens Both

ALLSTON-BRIGHTON ON THE MOVE: Boston’s Most Transportation Changing Neighborhood



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