Letter to Governor Patrick – Mount Auburn Street and Fresh Pond Parkway

Senator Brownsberger and his colleagues representing Watertown, Belmont and Cambridge sent a letter to Governor Deval Patrick, urging him to release funds to study the intersection of Mount Auburn Street and the Fresh Pond Parkway.  This is a major bottleneck for commuters trying to get from Belmont, Watertown and points west to Cambridge, Boston and points east.

Governor Deval Patrick
Massachusetts State House
Room 105
Boston, MA 02133

June 4, 2014

Dear Governor Patrick,

We are writing to urge you to release $500,000 “…for the design and permitting to improve safety, bus prioritization, and accessibility at the intersection of Fresh Pond Parkway and Mount Auburn Street in the city of Cambridge” as authorized by the 2014 transportation bond bill ( Ch. 79 of the Acts of 2014).

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. The roughly 5,000 who daily take the 71 or 73 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 busy intersections and most of those intersections simply cannot be eliminated.

There have long been conversations about how to improve the intersection of Mount Auburn Street and Fresh Pond Parkway. A group of us recently met in Cambridge to brainstorm possible directions. The City of Cambridge, which owns Mount Auburn Street in that stretch, hosted the meeting and 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 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.

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 problem is regional and is created by congestion on a state-owned roadway. The solution will require sustained collaboration between several state agencies and several municipalities.

We appreciate your consideration and hope that you will release funding to study this problematic intersection.

Senator William N. Brownsberger
2nd Suffolk & Middlesex

Senator Patricia D. Jehlen
2nd Middlesex

Representative Jonathan Hecht
29th Middlesex

Representative David M. Rogers
24th Middlesex

You can view a copy of the original letter here

Andrew Bettinelli
Legislative Aide
Office of State Senator William N. Brownsberger


9 replies on “Letter to Governor Patrick – Mount Auburn Street and Fresh Pond Parkway”

  1. As a resident of Mt Auburn Street, I certainly agree with the findings of the committee. The light sequencing seems well optimized for the existing structure, so the structure would need to change in order to improve throughput.

    A small, immediate improvement could be gained by eliminating the access between Mt Auburn Street and Fresh Pond parkway while a structural solution is evaluated and implemented. Adding a left hand turn from Memorial drive east to Mt Auburn at the new light would help navigation back to the square. This would force some drivers to use Arsenal Street instead of Mt Auburn or Concord Avenue instead of Fresh Pond parkway.

    Increasing subway parking at Alewife and MBTA capacity into east Cambridge and Boston is important to reducing load on Fresh Pond Parkway. Alternative bus routes from Belmont, Watertown, and Waverley Squares to Harvard, Central & Kendall Squares via Arsenal & Western Avenue could take some of the load off the Mt Auburn Street routes.

    Alternative structure requires space, underground, above, or through the parks, money, private property seizure, and time. Especially time.

  2. Would be interested to hear more — not sure what you mean by

    A small, immediate improvement could be gained by eliminating the access between Mt Auburn Street and Fresh Pond parkway while a structural solution is evaluated and implemented.

    How would the trolleys go in your vision?

    The subway parking at Alewife is constrained by the congestion there — we are working to streamline the 2/16 intersection, but the whole system around the garage — the ramps and Cambridge Park Drive — is overloaded and some engineers don’t feel we could get more cars in and out of the garage. Something to keep talking about though.

  3. All of Rt16 is an issue at rush hour. It gets backed up at the lights in Medford just before the I93 junction, at its junction with Rt2, at the Fresh Pond Roundabout and then again at Mount Auburn.

  4. One large improvement to the Alewife T garage would be a direct exit onto Rt.2 westbound, without having to go through that abomination of a rotary at the 2/16 convergence. I bet just eliminating the traffic lights there and returning it to an open rotary would be a huge improvement.

  5. The Alewife garage was designed for expansion to 7 levels — note the extra buttons in the elevator and the extra stairs leading up from level 5, now the roof — but expansion has always been rejected because the traffic in that area is so awful already. Traffic improvements could potentially mean the garage could be expanded when it is repaired.

    In the longer run, of course, it would help more to keep traffic from reaching Alewife with a red line extension to Rt 128.

  6. As a long time commuter and carpooler from Watertown to Cambridge, I can remember smoother times! Some of that may have been due to less traffic in earlier years, but one point at which I remember everything jammed up was when a “No turn on red” sign was put up at the corner of Mt. Auburn & Coolidge Hill Road. Before that, a number of vehicles avoided the Mt. Auburn stretch between Arlington St. and Rt. 2–relieving congestion there– by going around the cemetery and turning “Right on Red” OR right on green at the Coolidge/Mt. Auburn intersection.

    Simultaneously, an automatic “Walk” sign was added that stopped traffic for a long time–whether or not anyone was waiting to cross (& even whether or not Shady Hill School was even in session).

    In addition, the timing of the 2 lights (Mt. Auburn/Coolidge and Mt. Auburn/Rt. 2) was such that only a few vehicles at a time could make it through both. With all these factors, it was not surprising that the flow slowed or often stopped.

    [A similar, less complicated, situation exists in front of the BB&N upper school, as Rt. 16 divides to join either Storrow Dr. or Greenough Blvd. The addition of a red/”Walk” light a few years ago, to help students cross from the school to the river makes for a VERY LONG red light–again, whether or not there is anyone wanting to cross, or whether or not the school is in session. For ex., it doesn’t seem necessary late at night, when the school is dark and there are no pedestrians in sight…..Perhaps the timing of the light could be regulated?]

    Thank you for your sustained effort to navigate these traffic problems. It does seem important that a formal study be undertaken–to have professional design input added to the data of our anecdotal experiences.

  7. To Mike: I share your instinct and did once ask the traffic engineers to model a return to the rotary. It doesn’t work well. As I recall the analysis, if we had a rotary the cars waiting in the jug handle coming up from the station would never get out — rotaries work when there is a balance of traffic coming in from all directions. The outbound/west flow on Route 2, combined with the flow from Route 2 to Route 16 East, would dominate the jug handle flow which would have to yield in a rotary model.

    Would love to find a direct exit model, but I’ve never seen a proposal that was physically possible without engaging huge fights over wetlands.

    To Sue: Love the Red Line extension. It’s not in the financially constrained capital plan these days. We’re just trying to catch up on “state-of-good-repair” work on the existing lines. But we should keep dreaming big.

    To Beth: Good history. Hopefully, we’ve got that light at Coolidge Ave timed right now — worked on that this winter — but there is much much more to do. We need a comprehensive professional look at the options and hopefully we can get it moving.

  8. Thanks for addressing this obvious, easily neglected (because it is not yet a full fledged disaster) problem, one that eats time and gas, adds avoidably to pollution, and is withing reach of possible approaches. John M.

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