Congestion near Fresh Pond Parkway

The following statement was released jointly by State Senator Will Brownsberger, State Senator Pat Jehlen, Representative Jon Hecht and Representative Dave Rogers.

Update 2/11/2016: Contract Awarded

If you commute inbound from Belmont, Watertown or West Cambridge, there is one problem you always have to solve — how to get past the congestion on Fresh Pond Parkway. A movement is afoot to improve the situation.

The roughly 5,000 who daily take the bus to Harvard Square often wait through a long queue of traffic along Mount Auburn Street by the cemetery. Thousands more in cars are stuck in the same mess or in the parallel messes on Brattle and Huron.

Fresh Pond Parkway is among the most congested roads in the Commonwealth. The parkway channels a huge volume of traffic through a series of busyintersections and most of those intersections simply cannot be eliminated. But there are two critical intersections that can be improved with real benefits for the commuting public.

About seven years ago, a group of us started talking about how to address the main intersection at Route 2 and Route 16 by the Alewife T Garage. After a couple of years of meetings and the modeling of a number of alternatives, we settled on a concept which will redesign the intersection and simplify the light cycle there, allowing more cars to be moving more of the time. Public hearings are complete, designs are complete to the 100% level, and funding appears to be available.We are hopeful that construction will start in the not too distant future.

A new conversation is starting about how to redesign the intersection at Fresh Pond Parkway and Mount Auburn Street. We recently held a first meeting in Cambridge to brainstorm directions. The City of Cambridge, which owns Mount Auburn street in that stretch, hosted the meeting. The state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation which owns Fresh Pond Parkway, sent a strong team.

The MBTA also participated in the conversation, confirming that, by far, this intersection is the most significant bottleneck for the 71 and 73 buses serving Watertown and Belmont. Improvements at this intersection could dramatically improve service on those busy routes. Belmont and Watertown also sent representatives who emphasized their willingness to collaborate.

We reviewed recent efforts by the City of Cambridge to improve light timing in the intersection — through the winter, the Coolidge Avenue light, immediately before the intersection, was out of synch with the main light, contributing to extraordinary delays. That situation has been rectified, but tuning of the timing continues — at the height of the rush hour on Mount Auburn, there is also a crush of parents dropping off students at the Shady Hill School.

As the conversation shifted into brainstorming mode, there was a sense of excitement in the room — it became clear (a) that no one has really studied the intersection in many years and (b) that there are real opportunities for improvement.

Aerial views of the intersection make obvious how much wasted space there is in the middle of the intersection. That huge empty expanse takes a long time to clear once the light turns to red. To allow motorists to clear the intersection, there are significant intervals when the lights are red both ways — that means that cars and buses are waiting when they should be moving. And, of course, the long crossings are very unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists.

At a minimum, it is clear that the geometry of the intersection can be substantially improved. And a wide range of other options merit consideration — the scope of study should include the whole series of intersections along Mount Auburn. The transportation bond bill approved this week and sent to the Governor includes language that we have sponsored to fund a study of the intersection.

The problem is regional and is created by congestion on a state-owned roadway. A solution will require sustained collaboration between several state agencies and several municipalities. The first meeting was very promising. As your legislators, we are committed to fighting for funding and doing everything we can to support a long-term focus on the redesign of this intersection. Saving 10 or 20 minutes a day for thousands of people is one of those little things that is actually a very big thing.

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Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

39 replies on “Congestion near Fresh Pond Parkway”

  1. Hi Will

    This is great news but why the long delays for the Rte2/16 project? After 7 years of meetings and design, and no set timetable for construction, it seems it will be 10yrs from discussion to finish product. Are we looking at similar lengthy time frame for Mt Auburn and Fresh Pkway improvements? I realize it takes time to study, discuss, design, and construct these projects but with the multitude of organizations you listed that oversee various parts of the intersection, it seems it may take even longer. I hope this is not the case because it is very bad now.

    Thanks

    1. I agree with Mayt. That 7 years to reach a conceptual solution is too long. Senator, I appreciate your effort and I understand the challenges but it appears that this approval process is a ppotential issue. Trafic pattern will change, neighboring lot will be developed , people will move in and outout. Most of the original data that support the prproposal will be outdated.

      We know that every project cannot Pleaseeeverybody, no matter how hard we try. But time is the essence for everybody, and every nation.

      Senator, can you help to design a framework to constrain the time line on public projects. We just cannot afford another 17 year big dig.

      Thank you.

  2. Honestly, the hard truth is that urban road projects take time.

    I spent 15 years working to get Pleasant Street in Belmont rebuilt from first public concept meetings to start of construction. Trapelo Road took about 10.

    There are exceptions — the Patrick administration did a great job with the Accelerated Bridge Program, moving needed repairs very fast. But there are a lot of stake holders in most urban roads and different designs favor different groups of road users and abutters. There a lot of issues requiring negotiation and if you move the process too fast, you end up with conflict that bogs thing down further. A lengthy design process, with extensive negotiation is the rule for urban road changes. That’s especially true for state funded projects where many formal design approvals are required.

    We’ll look for low hanging fruit. The City of Cambridge may be able to make some short run improvements more quickly. Nothing big will happen in less than three years and 5 to 10 is more likely.

    We’ll move it as fast as we can!

  3. . . . received this comment by email:

    In today’s Belmont-Citizen Herald you and your colleagues wrote about traffic congestion, including at the intersection of 2 and 16 by the Alewife T garage. I wonder whether plans being considered include better ingress / egress to the T garage, and consideration of adding capacity to the garage? (I understand that it’s original design contemplated the addition of two more levels.) During rush hour many cars headed to the garage get stuck in a long line of exiting traffic because entering the garage takes time, and the same thing happens during the evening rush hour exiting the garage. Further, the limited capacity of the garage means that people arriving after it fills are either left to wait in line (further congesting the area) or possibly having to drive to work, adding to more cars on the streets. I wonder if any study has been conducted as to how many days per year the garage is full (or close to full) by 9 or 10am? Probably if entry / exit from the garage was smoother and there was more capacity, more people would be enticed to take the T to work rather than drive.

    Yes, the issue of adding capacity to the garage was part of the discussion around the 2/16 intersection improvement. At this point, the approaches to the garage are the capacity limiting factor. The garage is full, but the approaches are also full. Step one is do what we can with the approaches — hence the focus on the intersection.

  4. It seems one of the problems is that Cambridge keeps approving new plans for building high rises and office blocks along Concord near Fresh Pond – there is a new one almost ready near Trader Joe/Bank of America – it’s about seven floors. Heaven knows how many cars that will attract, and that is already a very dangerous turning intersection.
    There seem to be other buildings planned for along that stretch of road to Blanchard.
    Why are plans allowed for new buildings without the impact on traffic assessed? It can take almost an hour during rush hour to travel half a mile from Huron road to the first rotary near Concord, and then as long as half an hour more to the second rotary.

  5. Glad to see this is being looked at.
    IN ADDITION how about doing something immediately to correct/prevent illegal merging that occurs daily during morning commute as traffic on Fresh Pond Parkway approaches the Eliot Bridge? The left-most lane clearly leads to Memorial Drive, but many drivers in the left lane zoom past the slower middle lane (headed toward the bridge) then squeeze to their right at the last minute causing great congestion and occasional Road Rage in front of BB&N. How about a police presence in the AM commute time (say 7 to 8:30 or 9:00 AM) at that merge point?

  6. Any improvement is a
    good and welcome thing.

    It is, however, well past time to address the danger created bY the poorly configured intersection at Huron Ave and Fresh Pond Parkway. Drivers routinely run the poorly conceived traffic light there and something about its shape and slope contribute to the already speeding traffic. The posted limit is 30mph, however if you drive at that speed you will find yourself tailgated, passed and verbally abused by your fellow drivers. I live on the parkway and cannot say that I have once seen the StAte Police cite somebody for speeding.
    Accidents are numerous and not all are reported. The neighbors’ experience of collisions just doesn’t seem to correspond with reported accidents.
    Hubcaps and bits of trim attest to the marginal control vehicles maintain when speeding down Fresh Pond Parkway between Huron Ave and Mt Auburn Street.
    Public safety and quality of life will suffer until solutions are based on planned development and sensible thoroughfare and not upon piecemeal changes to individual intersections.

  7. Hi Will:

    Regarding the Mt. Auburn / FP Parkway intersection, I hope that some sort of traffic tunnel was discussed. Either for FP Pkwy or Mt. Auburn. This would help through traffic a lot and help Mt. Auburn traffic (which is mostly local and the main bus lines) to flow freely. BTW, an improved “intersection” will impact the lights on both sides (Brattle / Huron and at Mem Drive and Soldiers Field Road), so these should also be part of the study of the overall impact.

    Good luck!

  8. The congestion in the Cambridge Alewife shopping area near Fresh Pond Reservoir is rapidly escalating, dangerous and unsustainable. Big money construction projects are mindlessly and greedily taking over the neighborhood. Residents are working with City Councillors to create a Master plan to address a host of issues including environmental impact and the need for social and visual aesthetics relating to urban planning and design.

    A moratorium must be entertained to slow down unfettered development so “all involved” can apply a reasoned approach to the city’s housing needs and quality of life issues. Developers with no community investment what so ever, have seized on new re-zoning procedures creating a vulnerable situation to area residents.

    Resident of West Cambridge for 30 plus years, raised my family here and enjoy the open natural wonders of Fresh Pond Reservoir, also vulnerable to this much development.

  9. Hi, Will, I’m very glad someone else has raised the subject of the disaster in the making, the stretch of Concord Ave from the Fresh Pond Parkway to Blanchard. The building boom approved by the City of Cambridge, including the ugly, over-sized condo development adjacent to the Trader Joe’s shopping mall, seems to have been authorized with no consideration for the impact on traffic. From Fresh Pond to Blanchard, the area between Concord to the commuter rail tracks is a holding pen, blocked from egress on three of four sides. The only way out or in is Concord Ave, which itself is blocked on one side by the Fresh Pond reservation. Where are all the cars going to go? During phases of the construction of the condo building when trucks were blocking the west side of Concord (while Cambridge police officers stood by chatting with each other) traffic came to a standstill on the inbound Fresh Pond Parkway back on to Route 2, almost to Lake street in about 10 minutes. This was in the middle of the day. How are cars from the condo when it’s occupied going to get into Concord Ave through the narrow road that’s there now? It seems to me you can make all the plans you want for either end of the Fresh Pond Parkway, but it won’t help much if this issue isn’t dealt with.

  10. I live about 1/2 mile from fresh pond. I avoid the fresh pond area at all costs. The recent new construction/development (retail/housing) directly west of the rotatar makes it clear that cambridge and its government does not care about the overcrowding and traffic nightmares. The parking situation for the newer retail stores (trader joes, chipotle, etc) is totally inadequate in terms of navigating through the lot. Only one vehicle can enter or exit the side driveway at a time. Who was the genius civil engineer that designed this and who is in the town approved this mess?

    also, it’s maddening that the overflow and traffic patterns at freshp pond circle directly impacts what used to be a quiet little neightborhood in the belmont/cambridge line on blanchard road. Blanchard road is not big enough for any more traffic – bikes, cars, or trucks. At minimum, get a truck ban there! Think about making it a one way street. It’s only by sheer luck that there hasn’t been fatalities on this roadway which is carrying more than its share of the fresh pond traffic burden.

    This has been under your purview for many years, Rep. Brownsberger, and you have seen this coming for a long time. it’s time for action not words.

  11. Hi Will,

    I am glad to hear of all these positive traffic initiatives around Fresh Pond.

    But I agree with Elizabeth Marran that “The congestion in the Cambridge Alewife shopping area near Fresh Pond Reservoir is rapidly escalating, dangerous and unsustainable.” I have been watching this traffic impact coming for the last two years!

    I also second Bill Phillips and Charlene Smith that something should be done immediately to find ways to exit this new neighborhood of highrises in the Cambridge Highlands and to limit the number of vehicle that will be going onto Concord Avenue and creating a huge snarl of traffic.

    What were the authorities thinking, or not??!!

  12. Agree with previous poster. Curb or Halt development until these improvements are complete. Dig a tunnel for those simply trying to get through to memorial/sorrow.
    Also improve bike/pedestrian experience with bridges over the parkway and perhaps fences/walls between paths and traffic. Neither biking nor walking is pleasant along this stretch of the parkway. Perhaps increase public shuttle service or bus from alewife to nearby destinations like watertown square, medford, etc.
    thanks for working on this Will. It is the worst part of where we live. We love it here but hate the fresh pond traffic.

  13. Would an underpass of Mount Auburn St. Traffic work? Something similar to the Huntington Avenue/Massachusetts Avenue intersection? Or even a curved underpass similar to the Leverett Circle to Storrow Drive type of setup? Ofcourse the traffic would still back up at the red lights outside of the BB&N School.

  14. I can’t wait to see the study of this intersection. I travel through here virtually every day and have tried many circuitous routes to avoid the intersection, particularly this winter.
    It is extremely unsafe for cycling and so I don’t take my bike because there is no safe way to cross the intersection. The bus has to cross over in the lane and there are no lane markings. Just telling people which lane goes across and putting lane markings across the intersection would help significantly.

  15. Why don’t they just make a flyover type of road from the end of Route 2 to Storrow Drive so that everyone “cutting through” Belmont will use the flyover road and not hold the Town of Belmont hostage 2 times a day. I’m tired of new residents faulting the Town of Belmont for the poor road conditions. Maybe the roads wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t used so extensively by outsiders cutting through Town as they try to avoid the Route 2 rotary!!

    Oh well. Just my thoughts.

  16. One thing that would be a huge improvement beyond expanding the Alewife T garage would be a direct exit from the garage onto Rt. 2 westbound without going through that kluge of a signalized rotary that was clearly designed by sadists. Even the original rotary sans traffic lights would be better than the present arrangement.

  17. Thanks for your attention to this matter, Will. As a resident of the neighborhood, I have watched the traffic along the Fresh Pond corridor escalate year by year. As others have pointed out previously, this is unlikely to change in the short-term, with 1.3 million square feet of new development already built in the area and another 3.9 million square feet currently in the pipeline. When asked, the City of Cambridge’s standard answer regarding Route 2 traffic is something along the lines of “That’s not our problem. The State owns that road.” Which is technically correct, but also woefully inadequate as a response to a longstanding public problem. Instead, we need both local and State authorities to collaboratively address these issues now. I applaud your efforts to push forward with the work at Route 2-Route 16 and at Fresh Pond-Mt. Auburn. But as other commenters have suggested, I think we also need to consider more creative, long-term solutions.

    To that end, I would draw your attention to the existing Fitchburg commuter rail line running directly through the heart of the rapidly expanding Concord-Alewife region. Years ago, there were 4 passenger rail stations between Belmont Center and Porter Square (at Sherman St, New St, Fawcett St, and Blanchard Rd). Today, there are none, despite the fact that we are currently in the process of adding almost four thousand new units of housing on either side of the tracks. Perhaps some of those new residents would like to commute by rail directly to North Station rather than drive, take the bus, or take the Red Line to the Green Line? Such a switch would remove many vehicles from our already overcrowded roads. Or maybe some suburban commuters who currently drive to work within any of the 4.1 million square feet of commercial office buildings in our neighborhood could take the train to work instead of their own cars.

    Regarding the cost of such a project, Boston is in the process of adding two new stations to the Framingham-Worcester commuter line (Yawkey Station and Boston Landing). Both these new stations are being built to serve new residential developments in those neighborhoods. Yawkey Station (to serve Fenway Center) was built for $13.5 million and paid for by the State using federal stimulus funds. Boston Landing (currently under construction) will cost $16 million and is being 100% funded by the project’s developer (New Balance). Perhaps a similar effort could help us near Fresh Pond. Perhaps the City of Cambridge and the State should be exploring these types of creative transportation solutions to limit vehicle numbers, rather than ignoring the problem or, worse, proposing solutions that will only serve to increase rather than reduce the number of cars travelling through our already overburdened neighborhood. Just my two cents. Regardless, thanks for your efforts, and thanks for listening.

  18. As a citizen living in the Coolidge Hill neighborhood that is cut off from other neighborhoods by Mount Auburn Street and Fresh Pondt Parkway I am seriously concerned about safety. We have 2 schools in our neighborhood (Shady Hill and BB&N), and many children and elderly citizens living in the neighborhood who cross the Mt Auburn Street/ Fresh Pondt Parkway intersection several times a day. Just the other day I had to cross it with 2 young children in tow and our bikes – crossing the intersection and assuring their safety turned out to be a deeply stressful event- and the fact is: we did not fit onto those long narrow islands – I was stuck between deciding whether we should all squeeze onto the island with our bikes fearing that the fast passing cars may catch us or should I leave one of the kids behind to cross during the next light-cycle?
    I also want to remind us all of the citizens who have been struck by cars when crossing this dangerous spot!
    I understand that it is difficult to get the City of Cambridge and DCR around the same table and tackle this issue – but it is time we make this a safe place for children and families to cross!

  19. I am very pleased to hear about the improvements to the intersections, but I think improvements to the public transportation system, both short- and long-term fixes need to happen concurrently. We have to get more of the regional commuters out of their cars and into public transportation, and if we don’t do it concurrently, the improvements to the intersections have the opposite effect.

  20. Thanks to all who have weighed in above. The comments are helpful.

    Some responses and promised follow up:

    • The point about burgeoning development overwhelming local roads in the Fresh Pond area (and state roads running through Fresh Pond area) is totally valid and totally well taken. That’s a Cambridge decision, and reflects a pro-growth, pro-housing philisophy. At the state level, we can’t second-guess or influence that decision, but we do need to recognize it and try to respond.
    • There has long been discussion of adding a rail stop in the area and it may be justified by the potential ridership. I’ll report back on that.
    • Flyovers will be passionately opposed by local residents and are essentially a non-starter. But tunnels/underpasses might actually improve the local quality of life. The costs involved are huge for anything subsurface, but I would support this approach being in the option set when the intersection system is studied.
    • The direct garage option has been discussed — runs into local conservation concerns — the problem at Alewife is that it is surrounded by wetlands and green areas that many people passionately want to preserve, so changes outside the footprint of the existing paved areas are unlikely to get through the permitting process.
    • The safety concerns for pedestrians and cyclists will absolutely be part of the design process.
    • The enforcement concerns at the merge by BBN are duly noted and I’m familiar with the problem. I’ll pass that on.
    • Will also pass on the concerns about the Huron intersection
  21. One thing I’ve always had on my mind is the exit off of Rt 2 to go onto 16 north by Alewife. Traffic there wants to form 2 lanes at the light (no divider line though) and it is two lanes when you get onto 16. However, the right side median immediately after the light forces cars to squeeze together into one lane (or 1.5 lanes). Can this median be altered so two lanes can come to the light and continue onto 16 as two lanes?

    Another spot I consider very dangerous is the road that comes off of Concord just before the rotary for people to get to Trader Joe’s parking lot. Cars turning in/out of it have to watch for fast cars exiting the rotary who have very little warning if a car has turned in front of them. It is hard to tell if a car is going to exit or continue on the rotary (they rarely ever signal). There is no light there either but there is a light immediately to the right on Concord so cars pulling out watching to the left for fast oncoming cars can’t see if cars have stopped immediately to the right at that light. Maybe that road needs to be redesigned? Not sure what the fix is there.

    As far as the Fresh Pond area in general I can’t believe they are cramming in more condos in that area. It is already a parking lot when it is busy and adding more traffic entering or leaving is going to be the last straw. I feel like Cambridge uses that area to dump their new housing.

  22. “But tunnels/underpasses might actually improve the local quality of life. The costs involved are huge for anything subsurface, but I would support this approach being in the option set when the intersection system is studied.”

    An interesting idea but I’d be very cautious building structures like that in that general area due to the potential for flooding. The whole area used to be rather swampy and I wouldn’t be surprised if the water table there is high. It still floods occasionally during storms along the Arlington/Cambridge border.

  23. Mark,

    Your thought about 16 North from 2 is, I think, incorporated into the redesign plans for that intersection — the redesign claims some of the islands in the middle of the intersection to add extra lanes.

    I know what you mean about the Concord intersection — will pass that on to Cambridge.

  24. Will, this is the project that I have been waiting for the first day I am commuting through RT-2 to downtown Boston. Thank you so much for pushing it through.

    The last 2 miles of route-2 and first 2 miles of route-16 after the alewife intersection consumes the most worthless portion of my daily life. Stop and go traffic, jammed rotary, frequent accidents, you name it, it happens there.

    I absolutely agree with Margaret Drury. The road system at alewife brook and fresh pond parkway is incapable of handling the incoming traffic from route-2 and route-16. The road system/regional planning need to be redesigned as a whole piece.

    More importantly, is to give people incentives to car-pool, take MBTA or bicycle.

    I would suggest the following in addition to the request of a systematic redesign.
    a) A dedicaded car-pool/bus/shuttle lane in and out of Alewife during rush hour.
    b) A safer cross from the Belmont bike path to the Cambridge bike path. I was almost hit by a car when a driver was trying to rush through the congested traffic. A couple speed bump can do the trick.
    c) An extension of red-line MBTA out of this super congested site with topological limits. ( this got to be for a long term, given that it took us more than 17 years to dig a 7-miles tunnel through Boston.)

    I hope this can help to solve the problem somewhat.

  25. Are the plans for the Route 2/16 project available online anywhere? It would be great to see what they look like, and even better if there is opportunity to provide feedback. Thanks!

  26. Hi Charlie,

    I know that Representative Rogers has paper copies (it’s a big book) in his State House office. You could contact him for a viewing.

    We will also look for an online copy and try to link here.

  27. All great points about congestion near Fresh Pond Parkway

    Perhaps one might characterize competing interests: those commuting into and out of Cambridge, Belmont, Watertown and Arlington, and those of the cross traffic who want to commute through Cambridge to somewhere else.

  28. One major factor is the pedestrian light xing between BBN and Mem drive. That light often turns red when there isn’t a pedestrian in sight and at heavy traffic hours, this contributes to the back up along FPP to Mt Auburn intersect and higher.

    I had not heard of the study regarding Rt2/Rt16/Alewife intersection. Since you mention the final plan is complete, where do I find a rendition? Naturally, to be effective this plan has to include the sequence at Rindge/T, the pedestrian light between both sides of the mall, both rotaries, Concord/New st., Tobin school hours, and the three nearby pedestrian xing lights. It is no small feat and I applaud efforts to fluidify traffic along FPP and Rt2/16.

    Thanks.

    N

    1. Please scroll back for “Older Comments” below — the Rt 2/16/Rindge study plans are posted there. That study happened about 5 years ago. We hope to get a different study going soon to focus on the light system closer to the River — Huron/Brattle/Mt Auburn, Elliot Bridge.

  29. Please do not overlook the rampant speeding and illegal trucking on Fresh Pond Parkway. The state troopers say that they cannot enforce speed limits between Huron Ave and Mt Auburn St due “configuration” issues.
    There are many close calls on this stretch which are not reflected in current data. Ask any resident.
    Will there be an opportunity for abutter input in the study?

  30. Hi Senator, thanks for leading the discussion.

    This project is way overdue. I heard about the word ” drinking from a hose” many times after I immigrated into this country. But the first time I see it illustrated is when I drive from Route 2 to Cambridge through fresh pond avenue.

    It is an awfully out-dated design where there are a major highway(Route-2), several busy roads( route-16, route-3, concord ave, Rindge ave and Cambridge park driveway, several office parks, shopping mall/residential areas) and a major MBTA terminal & its parking structure) converge and feed into this miserable two lane road with multiple traffic lights and rotaries.

    This is way overloaded, and the results is extreme traffic congestion, noise and air pollution caused by it.

    I appreciate what you did to resolve this, and I understand the fiscal and political constraints. But I still think it is little and late. And I think a complete re-design of the MBTA and road system is the only way out.

    That is the only way to reduce congestion and pollution, and most importantly, save everyone’s precious time several times a day to travel through.

  31. Rt3 from the Fresh Pond rotary to Mount Auburn has always been a disaster. To have such a busy route cutting through a residential area is dangerous and the road is just too small for the volume of traffic. When it intersects with Mount Auburn St. there are terrible back ups. A plane to mitigate this bottleneck is long overdue, but please consider cyclists in the plan too. If you’ve ever crossed that intersection on a bike you will knon just how dangerous it can be. Also the intersection of Mount Auburn with Belmont St at Star market when riding towards Watertown Square is very difficult as cars taking Belmont Street always cut cyclists off.

  32. Thank you for your work and for making information about this project available.

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