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.
I was out of state during the meeting but I wonder if there was any evidence that MassDOT had considered the cheaper, easier, more effective design alternatives that have been suggested by people who do not work for MassDOT? These alternative design ideas have been given to both Paul Nelson and Ammie Rogers though I am not aware of any feedback from the DOT, nor have I seen any evidence that these ideas have ever been considered by the DOT. Someone once told me that MassDOT doesn’t consider any ideas that are not developed ‘in-house’. I hope that this is not true.
For example (and please note that instead of reading the following text you could instead view the Youtube video via the link at the end of this post, if you are more visually oriented) …
One (poor) alternative that MassDot had suggested is a new Pike(westbound) OFFRAMP, onto Newbury Street, just west of the Bowker & just east of Brookline Ave. This is a bad place for an offramp, as the Newbury/Brookline Ave intersection could never handle the flow. Instead, it seems almost a ‘no brainer’ to do this: make a new Pike westbound ONRAMP at this location, and turn the CURRENT Pike westbound ONRAMP at Mass Ave and Newbury Street into a Pike westbound OFFRAMP. This configuration has the potential to allow traffic to exit the Pike and head in 3 useful directions (Back Bay, or BU/Kenmore, or Fens/Longwood via Charlesgate East, Kenmore Steet, or Brookline Ave) vs. only one option for this traffic (Brookline Ave) in the MassDOT plan. There is also potential for a new Newbury to Fens ramp here for even better Fens/Longwood access from the Pike. Also, Pike ONRAMP access is improved by allowing Pike onramp access from Charlesgate West (closer to Longwood) in addition to the current Mass Ave. area Pike onramp access. The new onramp location will also reduce traffic on Comm Ave inbound, in the area currently under the Bowker, as Kenmore/Longwood traffic heading to the Pike West bound onramp need no longer cross that part of Comm Ave under the Bowker to get to the Pike (thus reducing the need for the Bowker to ‘fly over’ this intersection).
As to the Fens side, Sen Brownsberger points out about ramps to/from the Fens that MassDot claims, “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”. But maybe you wouldn’t! The MassDOT design seemed like a bad one right from the start. But an alternate design has been suggested, one that Dukakis era Transportation Secretary and MIT engineer Fred Salvucci has said seems do-able, and wouldn’t require shutting down the Pike either to build. This alternative would be to move the commuter rail tracks existing ‘right shift’ from where they are now, just before the Pru tunnel inbound at Mass Ave, and instead do this shift just west of the Bowker’s Pike overpass portion. This gives the DOT the room for a Pike eastbound downramp from the Fens (at Bowker over Pike) WITHOUT shifting the entire Pike. And given DOT’s future plans to rebuild this portion of the Bowker over the Pike, if this rebuilt Pike overpass were shifted east a bit, the DOT may also be able to fit a Pike(eastbound) OFFRAMP here from the Pike up to the Fens toward Longwood. And no traffic light back up need be created if this traffic had its own lane into the Fens and was forced to stay right in the Longwood direction (just as traffic flowing this way has no traffic light now, except for a Pedestrian crossing light). This may require making Ipswich one way for a short distance, but this alternate plan also includes provisions for an alternate path to effectively maintain 2-way Ipswich traffic flow (explained in the video). As noted earlier, Secretary Salvucci said that this seems do-able, but warns that planned new construction in the Pru tunnel area could make this rail shift impossible in the future, if that new construction were done in a way that resulted in a new support barrier being laid down in a place that might block the relocation of the shift of the tracks.
If the MassDOT were willing to consider outsider ideas, perhaps they might have found a way to actually affordably and effectively add ramps for improved Pike access, thus reducing Storrow – Fens traffic, and allowing for the eventual removal of the Bowker. It seems a shame if they did not. The alternative designs above adds 3 new ramps, and relocates 1 existing ramp, turning the Pike into an effective area alternative to supporting local traffic, replacing the current Bowker-Storrow traffic flow.
These ideas (and more) are mapped out in a video presentation on Youtube ( here, OR via a YouTube.com search of ‘boston bowker’ OR ‘boston armpit’ ). Steve Miller, founding LivableStreets board member said of the video summarizing these ideas, “I’m blown away…my head is totally spinning. This is really great!”. Sadly, great ideas are pretty much useless if they are never seriously considered by the powers that be!
I’d give MassDOT more credit for being open to ideas. I think they listened pretty hard across several years of meetings. MassDOT is naturally more aware of the constraints that they work under than we are, so they sometimes rightly reject ideas that might seem promising to us. That can be frustrating, but I think they are actually all about trying to get something good done and very open to ideas.
Thank you, Senator, for the most concise explanation that I have heard on this subject. We should accept the Bowker for what it is and improve the surrounding area as much as possible to make it more inviting to residents and neighbors.
Thanks for the response Senator, and I agree that the DOT can be responsive in a general sense, but I am talking about something a bit different. I don’t think MASSDot considers TECHNICAL input from us ‘armatures’ (i.e. the public). The DOT is fine considering ‘the what’ from the public (we want more bike paths, or more pedestrian room, etc) and seeing perhaps how THEY (the DOT) can make that ‘what’ work, but I don’t think they consider outside input on ‘the how’, perhaps thinking there is no ‘how’ worth considering if their engineers had not thought of it.
I doubt they spent even 1/2 an hour, or any time at all, evaluating any of the specific, alternate technical solutions submitted on this project; I think they instead roll their eyes and press the delete key. If MassDOT engineers had spent time considering any of these outside suggestions you’d think that they would have also spent an additional few minutes emailing back the results of that analysis (“we can’t do that because of x, y or, z”) to the suggestors. The fact that no such feedback is provided strongly suggests that no such analysis was done. In fact, the only time I ever saw such analysis happen was at one of the public meetings where a participant made the DOT publically promise to analyze a tunnel based solution (which they reluctantly agreed to do and did do). Other than that one instance, where they were forced to commit in public to look at a non DOT idea, I have seen nothing. Realistically, in my opinion, the tunnel based idea was a ‘non-starter’ in the first place due to cost/complexity and perhaps impossibility, but that doesn’t mean other ‘how’ ideas from outside the DOT should never be considered. The ideas from the public summarized in my original post (above) increased the usefulness of the ramps (Newbury proposal) or reduced the cost and complexity of building ramps (Fens proposal). Now (too late) I realize that the only way to get the DOT to consider such suggestions is to stand up in public and get the DOT to (reluctantly) agree to look at them and get that on the record, with the public and politicians watching. Otherwise they won’t and don’t do it. It was my mistake I guess in not anticipating that that is how the MASSDot works, or at least how it works for the Bowker Pike Ramp team.
Let me just throw in one more ignored idea, and I only do so because it frustrates me that it is ignored when I saw it so clearly (once again) on my rush hour jog tonight. I stood there waiting for the light change where the Fens meets the Bowker and while waiting I did a slow 360 degree turn. I saw a long line of traffic coming up Park Drive from Boylston street, toward the Bowker, all backed up, waiting at the light there. I saw traffic backed up onto the Bowker itself as the light changed allowing that backed up traffic to proceed left (eastbound) off the Bowker toward downtown. I saw traffic backed up heading north on the Fenway, waiting for the traffic to pass that is heading downtown. And as the light changes more traffic backs up just before the Bowker, waiting their chance to turn right onto the Bowker heading away from downtown. Why does this frustrate me? So much of these idling backed up car wait times here and around the entire Fens could be eliminated by making the Fens a big one way loop down to Agassiz, so that this traffic doesn’t have to waste time at red lights, waiting for cross traffic to flow, as it is forced to do now with the current 2-way, around the Fens, roadway design. Couldn’t someone model a one-way loop here and see what it does? This is all Bowker related of course, as with no Bowker there would be new car wait times at lights at Comm ave and Beacon, but this could be offset to some degree via removal of the current waits at lights around the Fens, which would be enabled by a 1-way Fens loop. This gives the chance that there would be not too much difference in total travel time across the Charlesgate/Fens area if the Bowker were removed, and all this could be done by making one relatively simple change in the Fens. But no one wants to consider this apparently, never mind model it.
The sad part for all of us, of course, is that when an alternate implementation is thought of, an idea that might solve a lot of problems, an idea that the DOT had not thought of, the idea falls on deaf ears. That is why the DOT sees one way to add ramps from the FENS (the ‘lets shift the entire pike northbound’ approach) when a perhaps better, more realistic, cheaper, easier solution is ‘kicking around’ that the DOT hadn’t thought of in house (and therefore won’t spend any time considering). This is even more evident with the proposed solution I’ve detailed in my original post for a Newbury side alternative ramp design … clearly a much more useful approach (just compare it to the DOT’s plan!) but once again an alternative that I strongly suspect the DOT spent zero time considering. A real shame for the neighborhood, for commuters, and for the taxpayer too, as the Bowker (as all overpasses) is much more expensive than surface roads, both to build, re-build, and maintain. What would have been great would be looking at these ramp ideas, and the Fens loop idea, and seeing modelling of the reduced Bowker traffic that would result, the reduced Fens waits, and seeing what would be the traffic flow if cars were on surface lanes in THIS configuration, instead of using the Bowker. It would have been great, and very useful, had it been done. But it never was. Instead we get the DOT’s conclusion that their obviously bad designs have been studied and determined to indeed be the bad designs that they obviously were from the start, and therefore not worth implementing. As for better designs, the DOT asks ‘What better designs?’ If DOT engineers didn’t suggest a design it doesn’t exist. And we are all the losers for it.
So the bike-ped path “may have to wait for final reconstruction of the overpass”? Don’t people ever come first? Hey, how about focusing on actual social justice NOW, and first things first, make the entire Bowker overpass area usable by everyone, mobility impaired people, older people, stroller-pushing people, students sloshing through uncleared snow and ice. We’ve got narrow sidewalks, sidewalks that disappear, uncleared sidewalks – can’t get the snow removed, because not enough prisoners available! I’m sure MASSDOT spent many thousands of dollars on this study, but whatever happened to civil rights? Everyone supports access,”within reason,” but it never happens. So yes, let’s have a nice long discussion about how we can move automobiles through our neighborhood.
John, I understand your frustration. There are so many things that you have legitimately urged that we haven’t been able to get movement on. We’ll continue to push DCR to attend to the access issues as well.
I am in agreement that the focus should be on public transportation. But more so we should have a moratorium (say 10 or until CO2 emissions are on the wane)on highway construction. Any future funds for highway should be just for maintaining the EXISTING infrastructure in a good state of repairs (no added lanes, on/off ramps etc.). Nobody on Beacon hill gets the fact that in Mass. we do not build cars or refine oil so our best opportunity is policies that will crowd out cars and fossil fuels with public transit and clean energy.
Thanks, Ed. That is actually how many transportation planners feel. In fact, that is really the bottom line of the decisions reported here — maintain the Bowker and maintain the Pike, don’t change them. The study of additional ramps was not initiated internally by MassDOT — it was done at the request of people and organizations in the Back Bay and Fenway.
I’m extremely disappointed at the outcome and the overall process for this study by MassDOT. They have done some really great work on other projects, with a very transparent and honest analysis of alternatives. In this case, I definitely feel like the public is being duped.
There were a lot of major problems with the process and the analysis, many of which were pointed out by attendees at the last public meeting:
1. All of the ramps designs they presented lacked any kind of creativity to fit them into a constrained urban environment. They didn’t show a single ramp design that didn’t have major impacts on surrounding streets and buildings, and in many cases it was obvious that this didn’t necessarily have to be the case.
2. With all the ramp designs, MassDOT assumed that they had to ADD new acceleration and deceleration lanes to the Mass Pike in order to fit them in. With this assumption, it’s nearly guaranteed that the ramps won’t fit without unacceptable impacts. There simply isn’t any additional room to be claimed. If you look at nearly all the other exits and entrances within Boston on the Mass Pike, you’ll notice that the rightmost lane BECOMES the exit or entrance. Yet MassDOT never showed the public ramps designs that did those or any analysis of what this would look like. They claimed that there was “too much through traffic” but with new ramps, certainly some of that traffic will be exiting and entering rather than continuing on. MassDOT should show the public the numbers and let the public weigh in. First of all, it’s difficult if not impossible to predict what traffic will do when the network is altered in such a dramatic way. Second of all, the public may feel that it’s worth the tradeoffs of better access for a little bit of additional congestion on the Mass Pike. Instead, MassDOT just said “sorry it won’t work.”
3. MassDOT never did or showed a combined analysis of the surface Bowker alternative along with new Mass Pike ramps. For most people, this is the most important thing they should have done. It has the most potential to transform the entire area, opening up parkland, creating new Mass Pike access and therefore reducing traffic going to a from Storrow, making it much easier to ground the Bowker and handle the traffic at the surface, etc. The fact that MassDOT never analyzed this just shows a complete lack of vision. The public was never even given an opportunity to look at what this alternative would mean and give it fair consideration, despite the fact that the Esplanade 2020 Plan and many other people have a much different vision for this area that keeping the Bowker there (or building a new one.)
The only good thing to come out of this process is the fact that MassDOT really hasn’t decided to do anything. The discussion about what replaces the existing Bowker Overpass will need to happen soon, so that we know what to build in 10 years when the current repairs reach the end of their lifespan. I hope that that process can be more transparent, more creative, and incorporate the many excellent ideas of local transportation experts. We are determining the future of a very important and well-loved part of the city. Boston is full of very smart people, and I have no doubt that we can come up with some better alternatives than “do nothing” or “build another overpass, but with bike lanes.”
Thank you Charlie for expressing so well some of the frustration I too have been feeling from this whole Ramps/Bowker process as conducted by MASSDot. I have my feelings as to why the DOT ended up where it has on this, in my response to Sen Brownsberger (the last post, below). Your comment about the lack of ‘creativity’ really hit home, because in this tight urban environment there has to be some of that I think to get something that works. And we didn’t get that, and as a result the Bowker lives on, and on, and on. A living monument to 60s thinking moved forward to 2014.
It is important to note that the Bowker Overpass is comletely dependent on park land, Charlesgate Park, which is part of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace, which is a designated a national landmark. The Charlesgate area part of the park system was included in the landmark designation even after the Bowker Overpass was built. DCR should do a better job of maintaining the fragments of the park around the overpass, and MWRA should do a better job with maintaining the Muddy River which flows through it, at the very least.
Very well taken about the Park, Randall. That is something I’m very much hoping we can get some real improvements on. I’m working on identifying the right DCR and City folks to pull into that.
I just noticed this erroneous statement: “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.”
There is no surface road next to it with extra capacity! MassDOT has to widen the surface street to 6 and 7 lanes, force all cyclists onto windy off-street paths with no bike lanes, and do exactly as you say is bad for Charlesgate:
“A very wide surface route might provide some of the necessary storage capacity, but six or seven lanes of idling traffic …is hardly an improvement for the neighborhood. It would cause a greater separation…and extend the crossing for pedestrians and cyclists.”
Casey Overpass removal is as bad as the proposal to eliminate the Bowker. Unfortunately, the users of the Casey are from minority neighborhoods and had no voice in the decision.
Greatly appreciate your thoughtful analysis. Whatever is done the balance should tip in favor of public transportation and improved pedestrian and bicycle access and safety.
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