The River Roads

The Governor has proposed to shift from DCR to MassDOT the control of Soldiers Field Road and Storrow Drive.  Currently the SFR/Storrow corridor along the Charles in Boston is managed by the state’s park agency, the Department of Conservation and Recreation. The Governor would transfer the vehicular corridor, but not the adjoining esplanade, to MassDOT, the state’s transportation agency. The transfer can be viewed from a few different angles and I am looking for feedback.

Legal Consequences of Transfer

Section 5 of the Governor’s FY2021 Budget Proposal adds SFR and Storrow to a list of roads defined as “designated parkways”.

“Designated parkways,” McGrath and O’Brien highways in the cities of Cambridge and Somerville, the Carrol parkway, Middlesex avenue in the city of Medford, William Casey highway overpass in the Jamaica Plain section of the city of Boston, Columbia road in the South Boston section of the city of Boston, Morton Street in the city of Boston, Storrow drive in the city of Boston, Morrissey boulevard in the city of Boston, Soldiers Field road in the city of Boston, Day boulevard in the city of Boston and Gallivan boulevard in the Dorchester section of the city of Boston, all formerly operated and maintained by the department of conservation and recreation.

Definition of Designated Parkways as rewritten by House 2.

Designed parkways are part of the “state highway system” a legal term included in the act of the legislature that established MassDOT in 2009. That act established MassDOT as a “body politic and corporate” and gave it ownership of and responsibility for the state highway system.

Among the powers granted to MassDOT is the power to:

enter upon any lands, waters and premises in the commonwealth, . . . for the purpose of making surveys, soundings, drillings and examinations . . . ; and provided, further, that the commonwealth hereby consents to the use of all lands owned by it, including lands lying underwater, which are deemed by the department to be necessary, convenient or desirable for the construction, operation or maintenance of the state highway system, the metropolitan highway system or the turnpike;

General Laws, Chapter 6C, Section 3 [emphasis added]

Additionally, MassDOT’s eminent domain powers extend to the relocation of utilities abutting the state highway system.

The department shall have power, in the process of constructing, reconstructing, repairing, rehabilitating, improving, policing, using or administering all or any part of the state highway system to take by eminent domain pursuant to chapter 79, such land abutting the state highway system as it may deem necessary or desirable for the purposes of removing or relocating all or any part of the facilities of any public utility, including rail lines,  . . ..

General Laws, Chapter 6C, Section 19

Project consequences of transfer

MassDOT has proposed to reconstruct the Allston interchange of the MassPike. The pike runs along the river on a crumbling viaduct looming over SFR/Storrow. (Technically SFR runs from Brighton to the BU bridge and then becomes Storrow.) Plans for the reconstruction are under continuing debate, but at this stage the plans contemplate relocating SFR into the river for a decade. Wetlands are heavily protected by law. Relocating SFR into the River raises a number of state and federal legal issues. However, the designation of SFR/Storrow as part of the state highway system appears to address at least one of those legal issues by implicitly giving the Commonwealth’s consent to the use of the land underlying the Charles.

Other structures along the corridor will also soon require major maintenance: The overpass of Storrow at Charlesgate and the underpass of Storrow at Arlington Street.  MassDOT has much more depth in large project management than does DCR.  Transfer of Storrow to MassDOT facilitates MassDOT’s management of those projects. However MassDOT could manage the projects without permanently transferring Storrow through some form of interagency agreement. It is possible that MassDOT’s powers over the roads it permanently owns as parts of the state highway system may be somehow useful to those projects as well.

Vision consequences of transfer

The river roads were built in the 50s and 60s and reflect the priorities of the last century — free movement of automobiles at the expense of parkland and neighborhood quality of life. There is a powerful argument that now is the time to reverse the priorities of the last century and turn the river roads back into easily crossed boulevards better connecting surrounding neighborhoods to the river. As deeply as I love that vision, I cannot vouch for it as realistic.

Starting in 2013, I participated in a process that MassDOT led regarding the reconstruction of the Bowker overpass. The Bowker connects Storrow to Longwood. I supported Charlesgate neighborhood residents who hoped that MassDOT would take down the overpass, which shadows their neighborhood and the Muddy River as it approaches the Charles. I pressed MassDOT hard to justify the reconstruction with a full traffic analysis. Ultimately, I had to concede the necessity of the overpass — I accepted that removing it would create regional gridlock and supported the reconstruction.

At the same time, I began pushing for the Central Transportation Planning Staff to conduct a broader study of the capacity of all of the road corridors and transit systems feeding the inner core of the city. SFR/Storrow is one of those critical corridors. The gist of that study is that congestion is only going to get worse as development continues over the next few decades — all of our systems are at our near capacity. More recently, we received a confirmation of that trend from the governor’s congestion study.

I have been drawn to the vision of downgrading the river roads for some years. Unfortunately, the hospitals and other institutions and employers that we are counting in the 21st century have come to depend on the transportation system of the 20th century. MassGeneral and the Longwood Medical Area both heavily depend on access by automobiles along Storrow Drive. More broadly, the transportation capacity of our inner core is so strained that we probably have to take an all mode approach to transportation — improving public transportation while preserving most of our existing road capacity.

As we struggle to manage congestion and to reduce greenhouse emissions, the debate about alternatives will continue on a project-by-project basis. The transfer of the river roads to MassDOT has no determinate impact on the larger vision issue, but does feel like a commitment to preserving the river roads as a high-capacity vehicular corridor.

DCR role consequences of transfer

I have long been of the view that our state park’s agency is overwhelmed by its responsibilities. There are many very competent and committed people at DCR, but the agency has so much on its plate that many projects and problems slip behind. As a legislator responding to concerns of my constituents, I typically have a dozen or more open issues with DCR at any one time. Many of those issues have been open for months or years and I am very frequently unable to prosecute them to any successful conclusion for my constituents. I know that many of my colleagues have the same perception: The agency needs better focus.

Last year, we inserted language into the budget creating a commission to study DCR’s role and responsibilities. The study is being led by the Secretary of Environmental Affairs and has the following charter:

The study shall include, but not be limited to: (i) an examination of the current responsibilities and structures of the department and the stewardship council established in section 2 chapter 21 of the General Laws; (ii) a determination of whether departments, divisions, assets or operations of the department should be transferred to other agencies, departments, municipalities or entities, with special consideration given to urban parks and roadways; (iii) a review of the capital and operating budgets of the department with an analysis at a component level of the relationship of cost to value; and (iv) recommendations on how to: (a) improve transparency and accountability for project choice; (b) maximize returns on the commonwealth’s investment in the department of conservation and recreation; and (c) improve project planning and execution, with special consideration given to the role of the stewardship council.

FY2020 Budget, Section 100.

I have confidence in Kathleen Theoharides, the Secretary of Environmental Affairs, and I have been looking forward to the outcome of the study under her leadership. I fully expect that the study will make recommendations about some of the many roadways that DCR owns. It appears very logical to transfer some of them to MassDOT or to municipalities. MassDOT and the municipalities are often maintaining adjacent or intersecting roadways or properties and fragmentation of responsibilities is inherently inefficient. From that perspective, I am very open to the transfer of SFR and Storrow away from DCR — it will help DCR focus on its core park assets and may lead to better management and maintenance of the roadways under an agency focused on transportation. But I am disappointed that this major decision is coming ahead of the conclusion of the study. That study might suggest transfer with particular conditions or terms relating to the design of the roadways.

Seeking Input

As I head towards a vote later this spring on the proposed transfer of SFR and Storrow from DCR to MassDOT, I would very much appreciate feedback on the proposal — whether it should go forward and, if so, under what conditions. Please do comment below!

The Esplanade is the crown jewel of the state park system and would remain with the park agency. My understanding is that no greenspace or bikepaths would be transferred and this is something I will be seeking to confirm and/or clarify legislatively.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

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63 Comments

  1. While I understand and appreciate the concern you’re approaching this issue with, the fact is that DCR has shown itself absolutely incapable of managing these roadways safely. DCR owned roads are some of the most dangerous and poorly maintained roads in the city, with incredibly bad pedestrian and bike features, dated signals that are poorly timed and hard to see and generally poor quality roadways. They also are an incredibly opaque agency, with very little public input or transparency. As much as I dislike some of the potential legal ramifications of moving these roads to MassDOT, I think they are absolutely better equipped to handle them and bring them up to a 21st century standard. Unless you plan on overhauling DCR and giving it the resources and staff it needs to properly manage the roadways they have, I think it would be better if they stuck to park management and MassDOT took over these vital roadways.

    This weekend I was walking along Morrissey Blvd as an excuse to get out of the house and I was appalled at the sidewalk, or lack thereof. Completely inaccessible, giant curbs, barely a 3ft strip of asphalt, no ped signals, etc. Same with Storrow and SFR. I think MassDOT has proven better equipped to quickly implement real changes to these roads to improve them for all. Just maybe it’s time to force them to drop some unnecessary lanes and add intersections and make them real city roads.

  2. I believe that the COVID-19 Pandemic has made it clear that we should be keeping parkways under the jurisdiction of MassDCR and focusing on the Park aspect. Emphasis on promoting the movement of people NOT vehicles should be a priority. More road diets, bike lanes and pedestrian spaces as well as bus lanes should be a priority for post COVID as well.
    I am not sure of any MassDOT jurisdiction roads where road diets have been made for COVID-19.
    Parkways should stay under jurisdiction of parks.

  3. I think ongoing maintenance of the river roads should be transferred to the cities of Boston and Cambridge (with appropriate budgets, of course). They are much better at handling citizen requests regarding issues like potholes, street lights, broken signs, trash etc. I’ve been reporting issues to both DOT and DCR for years using their clunky web form (DOT) or generic email address (DCR). I’m lucky if I ever get an acknowledgement, let alone actually have the issues addresses. See, for example, the 3rd-world state of the streetlights along Memorial Drive, or the horrendous amounts of trash along state highways. Boston and Cambridge have 311 systems where requests can be submitted and tracked. Of course with issues on the river roads, all they can do is apologize on behalf of DCR. Will there ever be a 311 system for state properties? The lack of communication and accountability is outrageous.

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