Northern Avenue Bridge: Ignoring the Obvious

The Seaport’s problems were created during Mayor Menino’s administration. But solving those problems falls to the Walsh Administration. And, despite many positive steps the city’s transportation leaders have taken in a variety of other areas, they seem to be falling into the same hole as their predecessors. Ironically, it is not because of the absence of planning, which the Walsh Administration has admirably done around several issues. Rather, it seems to come from their ignoring of their own plans and research, from prioritizing private interests over public benefits, and from bending to political pressure rather than holding to their own vision. Case in point: The Northern Avenue Bridge.

(Want to have a say? Come to the Public Meeting – 11/28, 6pm, 75 Northern Ave.)

SAILBOAT WITH NO RUDDER

It should be obvious that, in addition to workplaces, residences, and restaurants, a sustainable neighborhood requires transportation, schools, parks, and retail stores among other infrastructure and amenities. And if the neighborhood is being newly created, making sure that it’s all there requires some advance planning. As in any newly opened frontier, relying solely on profit-seeking businesses and market forces is not enough; they are too self-serving. They drive the economy like the wind drives a sailboat. But they only sail towards their own goals. For the potential public good to be realized, the public sector has to aggressively invest and regulate. Case in point: Boston’s Seaport District.

Mayor Menino was never very interested in city planning, but he was entrepreneurial. Seeing that the Big Dig would reconnect the city with the waterfront, Mayor Menino spent years desperately trying to get developers interested, even proposing to move city hall into the area. Nothing happened. Finally, the city essentially let developers do whatever they wanted. The result was inevitable: even if hip and young, the Seaport is a distorted neighborhood, lacking the basic infrastructure that would make it a community. And its transportation inadequacies make peak hours a traffic jam nightmare, enormously frustrating the huge and growing number of area employees coming in from outside (particularly the thousands of daily commuters coming from the North), thereby potentially thwarting the economic growth that is the district’s reason for existence. It’s a depressing example of the mess that almost inevitably happens in the absence of city planning and from giving too much priority to private interests.

Three traffic bridges connect the Seaport to the I-90 and I-93 ramps: Summer Street, Congress Street, and Seaport Avenue (officially named the Evelyn Moakley). They each spill into Atlantic Avenue, whose own overloaded traffic and red lights are a huge bottleneck. The proposed North Station ferry service will help relieve some of the pressure, but the gridlock won’t go away. The issue is what to do with the currently closed Northern Avenue bridge, located just north of the Moakley.

THE OPTIONS

The City’s consultants have proposed four options for the new bridge. The first two, favored by South Boston politicians, would rebuild the bridge wide enough for car traffic. Option one is a bridge designed to carry two-way traffic of all types: cars, buses, shuttle vans, etc. Option two carries all types of vehicles, but only going one-way out of the Seaport to Atlantic Ave – circulation patterns ensure that drivers will take one of the three earlier bridges to go into the Seaport. The third option (seemingly preferred by the city, the convention center, Massport, and area employers with private shuttle services – a powerful alignment) would design a new Northern Avenue bridge to carry one-way, outgoing High Occupancy Vehicles -- buses, shuttle vans, taxi and Uber/Lyft pick-ups, and other cars with 3+ occupants. Fourth option, favored by nearby community people and sustainable transportation advocates, is to make the bridge strong enough to handle emergency vehicles (ambulances, fire trucks, police cars) but to limit regular access to pedestrians and bicycles. (The adjacent Moakley Federal Courthouse’s staff is particularly eager to improve emergency access and exit as security precautions, do-able under all four options.) Each option would reserve differing amounts of space for walking, cycling, and “place-making programming” including social activities, art shows, and possibly pop-up retail.

Architects have proposed designs for each option. All have a “truss structure” similar to the old bridge with three lanes (called “barrels”) across the bridge. All will cost an estimated $80 to $100 million dollars, and probably more. All will have a life-span of 75 to 100 years. They differ in the placement, size, and number of the barrels to be used for motorized vehicles – one or two, in the middle or on the side – and the amount of pedestrian, cycling, and programmable space on the bridge and in the underlying support island.

CITY PLANS

Upon taking office, Mayor Walsh started a remarkable series of planning studies, including the impressive Go Boston 2030 transportation vision. Deep in that report, issued only a few months ago, is a bold commitment to implement an idea from the city’s previous South Boston Waterfront Sustainable Transportation Plan to run “direct [public] bus service…in exclusive bus lanes” from North Station and the South Boston waterfront in a loop on Congress and Pearl streets. (An alternative route would stay on Congress using a peak-time, bus-only, reverse flow lane on the short one-way section of Congress, eliminating parking on that block during those hours.)

Figuring out the details of this service, along with a full evaluation of other grid-lock-reducing options for getting people in and out of the Seaport – including the preposterous gondola fantasy – is the job of a forthcoming study funded by $400,000 from Seaport developers. However, as of this writing, the developers have not yet delivered the money and the city hasn’t yet begun the study.

In the meantime, a North Avenue Bridge Mayoral Task Force was convened. It is trying to decide what to do about that bridge in particular. Unfortunately, because the group is not taking a holistic analysis of the entire area and every alternative, some of its consultants’ conclusions seem inaccurate and misleading.

THE CONSULTANTS’ STORY

The consultants have said that, based on the data they have (but which have not been available for analysis by anyone else), using the bridge for general traffic – options 1 and 2 – would further slow movement along Atlantic Avenue. It would have little impact on Moakley Bridge congestion (people heading for I-93 North could not use the new bridge, which enters Atlantic Avenue past the tunnel entrance). And, because of traffic circulation patterns, it would have little or no benefit for eastbound movement into the Seaport. It would not in any way help move traffic through the rest of South Boston, even though Southie traditionalists hold on to that belief as strongly as they illegally protect their parking places after a snowstorm.

The consultants are more positive about the HOV-outbound option. Their traffic modeling suggests that this would cut the HOV vehicles’ travel time to North Station by 4 minutes, about 20%. If this incentivizes North Shore commuters to use a train/shuttle combination rather than their car, it might reduce the number of cars crossing the Moakley Bridge by about 10%, possibly cutting a few seconds off crossing time. However, this wouldn’t be enough to improve the intersection’s overall Level of Service above its current F grade.

The consultants’ numbers are based on an assumption that I-90, the I-93 tunnel, and Atlantic Avenue are all “functioning at their best” – something few observers think likely. Neither do they take into account the extra time it would take shuttles and cars to wind their way across the Seaport to the northern new bridge, nor the smoother traffic flow through the Moakley-Atlantic intersection that might result from the movement of a growing number of pedestrians and cyclists to a welcoming Northern Avenue Bridge. And its narrow focus means it doesn’t even look at transportation flow improvements that might be caused by building priority bus lanes or separated cycling lanes along Atlantic alongside the Kennedy Greenway.

The narrow focus also avoids examination of gains possible by adding a modified Bus Rapid Transit program on Congress Street, which provides relatively direct access to the north side of the Seaport. (The city is, through a separate process, looking at running a high-performance bus down Summer Street, but this is a distance away on the southern side of the area.)

JAMMED LOGIC

There are other aspects of the analysis that make it hard to understand why the city is seemingly abandoning its own Go Boston 2030 plans. Nearly everyone agrees that non-car alternatives are the only solution to too many cars – particularly finding ways to run transit and multi-passenger vehicles to North Station. At first glance, this makes option 3 – the HOV-only design – the obvious choice. Except that the rebuilt bridge will only carry one bus line, impacting only about 270 people a day. It will not do anything to improve Silver Line service. So the vast majority of vehicles on the bridge would be private companies’ shuttles and Lyft/Uber – and it’s clear that the city has no effective way to keep Uber/Lyft drivers with only one passenger from using the bridge, allowing them to continue to attract riders away from the few buses that do serve the Seaport, thereby adding to congestion.

The consultant’s impact study also assumes that the city will fail to meet its own traffic reduction goals set out in the City’s 2014 Climate Action Plan – undercutting another policy area where the city has positioned itself as a world leader. The consultant’s report assumes a 1.8% annual increase in Single Occupancy Vehicle trips.

Setting up the Congress Street express bus is estimated to cost about $21 million – and could be in operation having a positive impact long before whatever is decided for the Northern Avenue bridge gets constructed.

VISIBLE HISTORY

Bridges are special. At their best, they are engineering wonders both functional and graceful. They embody echoes of the time they were built as well as all the changes they’ve lived through. The Northern Avenue Bridge was built about 113 years ago to carry horse wagons and walkers. A center pivot allowed it to turn sideways to allow boats passage into what was still a huge and active South Bay harbor fed via the Roxbury Canal by the now-lost Bass River.

Like the rest of our streets, the bridge was quickly taken over by motorized traffic. After WWII, as its narrow lanes made car and truck passage awkward, the city neglected maintenance and the structure slowly deteriorated. There were deadlocked debates whether to repair and preserve or remove the historic structure, which still served as a pedestrian and cycling connection. The opening of the Evelyn Moakley Bridge on Seaport Boulevard in 1996 and the rebuilding of the historic Congress Street bascule-style bridge in 2008 should have settled the question. But continued city inaction led to further problems, making the bridge unsafe and requiring that it be turned sideways. Severe storms are now pushing water up into the deteriorating structure, creating a “demolition by neglect” situation. At this point, the bridge must be replaced, and very little of the current steel is anticipated to be re-usable – although the Historic Preservation community wants whatever is built to retain visual references to what used to be there.

COURTHOUSE CONUNDRUM

The Moakley Courthouse Security Staff are in a contradictory position. Although it appears that emergency vehicle access to the Courthouse has been adequate for the past several years without an adjacent bridge, security staff would like better. However, rising sea levels require the new bridge to be higher, which means that making it capable of handling even the emergency access desired by the Courthouse will push the Seaport-side entry ramp at least 20 feet closer to the front of the Courthouse: high enough to visually impact its appearance, close enough to raise noise and pollution issues should it be used for regular traffic -- and potentially creating new security concerns. Using the Seaport Boulevard or/and the Congress Street bridges (perhaps accessed through a no-parking Sleeper Street) might be a viable alternative – allowing the Northern Avenue Bridge to be designed simply for walking, cycling, and public activity, making its reconstruction enormously less expensive.

PREDICTABLE FUTURE

Sea levels are rising; storm surges are rising faster: much of the land-fill Seaport area will again join the ocean, at least during summer hurricanes and winter nor’easters. Traffic congestion is getting worse and it is simply no longer possible to expand our road capacity enough to significantly reduce the overload. And even if we could, adding more capacity would induce more people to drive until the new space, too, was filled. There is no possible car-oriented solution to the Seaport’s traffic problems. Our only hope is a massive increase in mass transit. Ferries will help; even better: building the long-discussed North-South rail link would solve much of the North Station access problem! We also need radically expanded walking and bicycling facilities. And, politically painful though it will be, we need to create dis-incentives for Single Occupancy Vehicle travel as well as seriously consider putting tolls on more highways with discounts for off-peak travel. At some point, we’re going to have to accept the need for raising gasoline taxes or imposing a carbon tax.

Fortunately, the Northern Avenue Bridge debate is not about the priority importance of transit in a time of climate change and car exhaustion. The city of Boston has policies that recognize that necessity. The issue is if city leaders are willing to follow through on the conclusions required by the facts their own studies reveal, or if the old and invalid belief in the ability of new roads to improve car mobility can still shape policy.

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Thanks to Stacy Thompson and Tony Lechuga for fact-checking. Remaining errors and interpretations are my fault.

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Related past posts include:

If You Build It They Will Come, But What Happens If You Take It Away?

Traffic Congestion: Why It’s Increasing and How To Reduce It

Bus System Improvement is Key to Transit: Local, Improved, Express, and Bus Rapid Transit  

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