Report on the Bowker Meeting

The question considered at this evening’s meeting at the Boston Public Library was:  Can we eliminate the Bowker overpass, rather than repairing it?    While there is no consensus as to the long term future of the Bowker, most attending had a clear takeaway from the meeting:  For now, the repairs must go forward.

There were 100 or more people present at the meeting. Paul Nelson, Nedd Codd and other members of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) planning team made a thorough presentation and there was a full discussion. MassDOT is maintaining a good online record of their study — the presentation from this evening should be posted shortly.

The original purpose of the Boston Ramps study (mapped out in 2008) was to review the possibilities for adding additional on and off ramps from the Turnpike that would improve  access to Back  Bay, Fenway and Longwood.  The study took longer than initially intended, but has been recently moved to the front burner, in part because of the conversation about the Bowker overpass, which connects Storrow to Fenway.

The Bowker Overpass is failing and MassDOT has put out to bid a contract to repair it.   Advocates for park land hope that in the long run we can eliminate the Bowker — it lies over the segment of the Emerald Necklace where the Muddy River joins the Charles.    Some fear that if the overpass is repaired, future options for elimination of the overpass will be foreclosed.  Those concerns surfaced strongly in the December study meeting.  The question in this evening’s meeting was:  Should MassDOT go forward with repairs or not?

The following facts emerged in the meeting:

  1. The Bowker Overpass carries over 50,000 cars per day.
  2. Roughly two thirds of those cars are going to or from the small and extraordinarily dense neighborhoods of Longwood, Fenway and the Back Bay.  This overpass is unlike some of the other overpasses that have been eliminated recently — it is the immediate access route into a large set of trip-generating hospitals and businesses.
  3. If the Bowker were eliminated without new ramps, travelers crossing over Beacon Street and Commonwealth Avenue between Storrow and Fenway would need to use surface roads.   The immediate alternatives — Charlesgate East and West —  could handle only about half of the daily peak hour traffic from the overpass (while experiencing huge increases in congestion).
  4. Fenway Park traffic, overwhelming already on game days, would be considerably worse.  Ambulances travelling to the hospitals would have longer travel times.
  5. Many other local roads would be impacted by the shifting of traffic from the Bowker to them.   Since many of those roads are congested already, the prospect would need careful advance study and consultation with Boston, Brookline and possibly other jurisdictions.
  6. Finally, even if vetted and approved, as a construction project, the removal of the Bowker would require several years of design, permitting and construction — many surface roads would need new signs; intersections would need to be retimed; the replacement connections to the ramps over the Turnpike would need to be designed and built; many of these activities would take place in environmentally sensitive areas requiring permitting.

Previous presentations have established the need for repairs to the overpass.  It has been targeted for rehabilitation for over five years.   MassDOT, since taking over responsibility for the bridge from the Department of Conservation and Recreation, has articulated repair of the bridge deck as an urgent public safety issue.

The only responsible course in the short run is the one that MassDOT intends to follow — to repair the overpass.

In the long run, we should give careful study to approaches that liberate the Emerald Necklace segment under the Bowker.    While this evening’s presentation did not resolve longer term questions, the evidence presented suggested strongly that any acceptable plan that eliminates the Bowker will require the creation of significant new transportation facilities.  In fact, new access routes into Longwood and Back Bay may be necessary even if we end up having to keep the Bowker — to accommodate expected growth while protecting local neighborhoods from traffic.

As a legislator, the following are enduring high priorities for me:

  1. Improving Green Line Service and expanding Green Line capacity.
  2. Seeing that we conduct a comprehensive transportation planning process for Back Bay, Fenway and Longwood that defines long term needs and realistic options for meeting those needs.
  3. Mitigating the impact of the Bowker repair process on neighbors to the greatest degree possible.



Published by Will Brownsberger

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

12 replies on “Report on the Bowker Meeting”

  1. In addition to improving public transportation to Longwood and the Fenway — it’s not so easy from Belmont — it would make sense to improve some alternate auto routes that avoid funneling everyone through the Kenmore Square area.

    I get to the Longwood hospitals by turning off Storrow Drive at the first BU exit, turning right on Comm Ave, left on St Paul St, and (after crossing Beacon) left onto Longwood. Perhaps it would make sense to examine all the alternate routes and see which could improved. Right now, for example, I have to turn right on Comm Ave. If it were possible to go straight across Comm Ave from that exit, my route would be shorter. What would be necessary to make that change?

    In the long run, and preferably before we’re all dead, it is important to uncover the parkland under the Bowker Overpass. In Boston: A Topographical History, Walter Muir Whitehill praised Olmsted’s design for the Charlesgate, the intersection of Muddy River with the Charles River, and lamented its obliteration when the overpass was built.

    Sue Bass

  2. I certainly decry the insensitive development during the 50’s and 60’s as much as anyone. However the likely cost of replacing the Bowker on the basis of per of acre of parkland recovered is likely astronomical. Aren’t there many more efficient and productive opportunities for adding parks and improving our cityscape in other areas of Boston?

  3. It sounds to me like Boston needs to rethink access to Fenway Park–a place with predictable surges in traffic flow that block access to the medical area. Other cities manage to get their sports fans on to subways and buses; we can do that too.

    When will the 2008 Ramps study be finished?

  4. Thank you for attending the meeting. I am new to the area, having moved in November. I walked the site the following morning.

    While I understand that the proposed tunnel option was prohibitive, it seems that burying of the access roads under Charlesgate East and West by trenching and covering with a local surface roadway would accomplish the same thing. The Muddy runs between the two roads so the lowered roadway would not have to be dug beneath it, and the green line is deep enough under the Muddy that the roads could run over it like the river does. The trench and cover could run all the way under the MassPike which is at about Comm. Ave. grade and then rise up to grade at the Fens.

    This follows the original layout of the Charlesgate roads from the Charles to the Fens with the through traffic running one level down and local traffic on the surface. It looks wide enough for three lanes in each direction.

    If Storrow Drive were likewise trenched and stacked East on top of West or vise versa then simple connections could be made in both directions without the swooping loops we have now, and extra width for riverside parkland becomes available.

    If desirable, the portion of the Bowker overpass over the MassPike could be grassed and kept as a pedestrian, bicycle greenspace which drops to grade before Comm Ave.

    Thanks for your consideration.

  5. I agree about the short run course, but we have got to do more to develop alternate routes. I’ve tried to help people find non-car commutes to Longwood from Belmont, and the choices are not at all good.

  6. The ramps study will finish this spring, but the larger capacity study, which will create a context for and motivate new ramp or transit investment has yet to start. Getting that study going is a high priority for me. The one big thing we know we need to do is improve the Green Line — huge unmet demand.

    Re the tunnel option, no question that getting the roads underground would be great — it’s just very expensive and hard to sell in a competitive funding environment.

  7. A neighbor on the block abutting the Muddy River Park on Marlborough Street suggested closing the Bowker for 6 months while it was being repaired, and monitoring vehicular traffic as it finds other ways to get to its destinations. It’s like the forces in a multi-story, multi-columned building: knock out one column, and the structural forces redistribute to keep the building standing. It’s called indeterminacy, and works for traffic just as for structures.

    Another thought: since one of your priorities is transportation, you can influence DOT planners and other policy makers to adopt your own resident- and environment-centric mindset rather than a car-centric one. In the long run, unmaking the Bowker mistake really falls into the category of improving the urban quality of life of Boston. The above-mentioned neighbor points to the fact that nobody today would think of suggesting an elevated highway traversing a park like the Public Garden. And all over the world highways are coming down to regain precious parkland and other urban amenities which succumbed to the transportation planners in the 50s and 60s.

  8. The MassDOT “crash portal” shows a large number of crashes at the Storrow Drive off ramp, Charlesgate, Beacon St, Bay State Rd intersection. Most are property damage, as can be expected with low speed crashes. Some are injury/death.

    The confluence of commuter traffic, local traffic and residential traffic needs to be managed to ensure safety. Diverting traffic to the MassPike and adding additional MassPike exits seems like it would help segregate the traffic; especially since (according to the data from the public meeting) a large volume of the Bowker traffic comes from Logan Airport.

  9. My good friend, Peter, above says:

    It’s like the forces in a multi-story, multi-columned building: knock out one column, and the structural forces redistribute to keep the building standing. It’s called indeterminacy, and works for traffic just as for structures.

    I think the finding from the data in the meeting, fairly viewed, was that knocking out that support just might bring the building down. Not that we know, but it is an experiment that isn’t prudent to try. We need to move on from the short run choice and study the long term questions that people are posing in the comments above.

    Elimination of the Bowker is still worth considering, but with full recognition that it is a big deal and cannot be done in the short run.

  10. In its traffic studies, MassDOT is assuming every single car that uses the Bowker today would use the same route in the future if no overpass was there and if new Mass Pike ramps were added. But traffic does not work that way. Traffic is ultimately people making individual decisions based on a variety of factors.

    (1) New ramps to and from the Mass Pike in the Back Bay area would alleviate the need for many people to use Storrow Drive (and the Bowker Overpass). The fact that you can’t enter the Mass Pike eastbound or exit the Mass Pike westbound forces many people to use Storrow Drive when they otherwise would use the Mass Pike.

    (2) If the Bowker Overpass were no longer there, some people will change their route, time of travel, or mode of travel. This has been shown to be true time and time again. Reducing traffic capacity does not cause the catastrophic congestion that traffic engineers usually predict. When the inbound Craigie Bridge was closed for many months during construction, the additional inbound traffic on the other Charles River Bridges was actually less than the total of the inbound traffic that used to use the Craigie.

    Restoring Charlesgate Park should be a goal we can all get behind to make Boston a more people-friendly city. It was once the crown jewel of the Emerald Necklace, and now it is car-dominated, dirty, loud, and ugly. We shouldn’t let unfounded fears of traffic congestion prevent us from creating the city that we all want.

  11. You are quite right that some traffic would go elsewhere. MassDOT’s analysis does consider that. Please the back half of their January 15 presentation.

    And, yes, new ramps could change the need picture — but that’s a long term question, like 10 to 20 years. Those are huge projects. In the interim, the decision to repair the Bowker makes sense. We need to keep the conversation about park restoration going for the long run.

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