At the Boston Public Library on Tuesday, MassDOT rolled out for comment their findings on the Bowker Overpass and the Back Bay ramps. Here, in a Q&A format is a summary of their findings.
What is the Bowker Overpass?
The Bowker Overpass is the four-lane elevated connection between Storrow Drive and the Fenway and Longwood neighborhoods. It can be thought of in two segments — the segment that takes traffic over Beacon Street and Commonwealth Avenue and the segment that takes traffic over the turnpike. Over 50,000 cars cross it daily. Some advocates would like to eliminate the first segment, but most agree on the need to preserve the turnpike overpass.
What are the Back Bay ramps?
They don’t exist, but for many years, businesses in the Back Bay have urged that there be a ramp allowing westbound traffic (e.g., from 93 or Logan) to exit directly into Back Bay. Currently, there is no westbound off ramp between 93 and Brighton/Allston. Additionally, in the context of the Bowker conversation, the possibility of on/off ramps into the Fenway neighborhoods was studied.
Can we just eliminate the Bowker Overpass and free up the park land underneath?
MassDOT’s heavily-vetted conclusion is No. If we eliminated the Bowker, we’d have to replace it with either a greatly widened surface route from Storrow, with lights at Beacon and Comm. Ave, or with new Turnpike ramps into Fenway. The connection between Fenway and Storrow, whatever it’s original wisdom, has become too heavily used to simply eliminate.
But the world hasn’t come to an end while MassDOT has closed portions of the Bowker for repair. Doesn’t that mean we could eliminate the Bowker?
In deference to the rush hour significance of the Bowker, MassDOT is keeping the two southbound lanes open during rush hour. It is also keeping one northbound lane open. Additional lane closures are occurring only between 9:30AM and 3:30PM. There is only a limited loss of service at the peak time, so there is no radical traffic experiment being done.
But in other cases, haven’t old elevated highways been removed?
Yes, but each one is unique. The Big Dig was feasible, but hugely expensive. Given that the Bowker runs over a river and also a subway line it just isn’t possible to tunnel deep enough and come back up in the relatively short distance that it spans. The elimination of the Casey overpass in Jamaica Plain is feasible because there is already a surface road with surplus capacity immediately next to it.
Are new turnpike ramps in Fenway feasible?
Really No. To fit new ramps into Fenway, we’d have to shift the turnpike northward to create space for the ramps between the turnpike and the railroad to the south. The construction costs would be in the hundreds of millions. Properties on the north side of the pike would be badly impacted and might need to be purchased. The turnpike would need to more or less close for months or years during the construction. Queuing at the necessary lights at the top of the ramps would extend back on to the MassPike. A completely different group of abutters would join the conversation in vociferous opposition.
Would a surface replacement for the Bowker work?
Not really — the lights at the intersections of Beacon Street and Comm. Ave would routinely back traffic well back on to Storrow Drive. Fenway “game day” traffic would be even worse. A very wide surface route might provide some of the necessary storage capacity, but six or seven lanes of idling traffic on Charles Gate West (or in the middle of the park space) is hardly an improvement for the neighborhood. It would cause a greater separation of those on the west side of the overpass from the Muddy River and extend the crossing for pedestrians and cyclists on Commonwealth Avenue and Beacon Street.
Can we improve the Bowker for the neighborhood?
Absolutely. Right now, MassDOT is repairing the Bowker. That repair will have a life of ten years or perhaps more. We should focus on how to make the park space underneath the Bowker safer and more attractive. That will be an immediate priority for me and for Representatives Livingstone and Rushing — let’s set things in motion so that when the repairs are complete, improvements can begin immediately.
Additionally, in conjunction with the repair, MassDOT is adding a bicycle/pedestrian connection from Beacon Street over to the Mass Ave Bridge. In the longer term, we can work on how to make the overpass itself accessible to cyclists and pedestrians — a safe bike/ped connection from the Esplanade to the Fenway would be a great asset, but that may have to wait for final reconstruction of the overpass.
What about new westbound ramps for Back Bay?
It’s slightly more realistic to add a westbound off-ramp in Back Bay, but at least one existing westbound on-ramp would need to be eliminated and again, the costs would be well over one hundred million. The limited modeled use of the new ramp suggests it would not be close to cost-justified.
What stage is the study at?
The results are close to final. After a number of public meetings for input, this meeting served to roll out findings for final comment. A final written report is expected within the next couple of months. Comments can be submitted until December 2 to Ammie Rogers, the MassDOT project manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What’s the bigger picture?
Shortly, the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization will begin a study of the transportation capacity constraints of the core of Boston and Cambridge in light of long-term development prospects. That study is likely to show a continually rising need to move people. The new interchange at Allston-Brighton, feasible as a result of the closure of the Beacon rail yards, may open some new surface traffic possibilities, but our surface traffic capacity is ultimately finite. It is constrained not only by the major throughways, but the side streets that they feed. Many neighborhoods already perceive congestion as unacceptable.
What’s the bottom line?
While continuing to be open to opportunities to expand or alter the road network, we need to focus primarily on improving public transit and also, perhaps, on smarter ride-sharing technology. With a substantial investment, the Green Line could improve rush hour capacity substantially. And the use of existing rail lines for subway-like connections may also offer some valuable new capacity. And we need to make the investments in park amenities that will improve the quality of life around the existing major routes.