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:
- The Bowker Overpass carries over 50,000 cars per day.
- 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.
- 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).
- Fenway Park traffic, overwhelming already on game days, would be considerably worse. Ambulances travelling to the hospitals would have longer travel times.
- 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.
- 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:
- Improving Green Line Service and expanding Green Line capacity.
- 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.
- Mitigating the impact of the Bowker repair process on neighbors to the greatest degree possible.