Cambridge officials push for pedestrian underpasses along Charles River

Originally published April 24, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.

Seven miles of uninterrupted pedestrian and bicycle pathways along the Charles River could be possible, advocates say, if only the state would agree.

Cambridge city officials and local advocates are hoping a delay in the state’s bridge renovation plans will give them enough time to add underpasses on the Boston side of the Anderson Memorial, Western Avenue and River Street bridges, enabling pedestrians and cyclists to pass underneath the bridges, rather than crossing in traffic, as they currently do.

Charles River Conservancy executive director Renata von Tscharner said it was a “once in a lifetime” chance to make the changes.

“When the bridges were built, these rivers were still smelly and toxic, so people didn’t want to be right next to the river,” von Tscharner said. “Now, the whole situation has changed.”

von Tscharner and the conservancy have been pushing since around 2006, she said, to get the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to add the underpasses to the bridge renovation plans.

MassDOT launched its Accelerated Bridge Program in 2008, pledging $3 billion over eight years to renovate 200 of the state’s more than 5,000 bridges, said MassDOT spokesman Michael Verseckes. Initially, the Western Avenue and River Street bridges were part of the Accelerated Bridge Program, but Verseckes said they have been removed from the program due to delays in the construction of other bridges along the river.

“The funds have been reallocated back into the (Accelerated Bridge Program) to address structurally deficient bridges elsewhere in the commonwealth,” Verseckes said, adding work on the bridges would be deferred until at least 2018 or 2019.

Although the Anderson Memorial Bridge is currently under construction, von Tscharner said delays in the project would give the state enough time for the permitting and design of the underpasses. It would be much cheaper to create the underpasses as part of the renovation, she said.

The underpasses are expected to cost between $1.6 million to $2.4 million, depending on the bridge, according to the conservancy’s estimates, but would be 30 percent less expensive if done as part of the renovations. Verseckes said each bridge renovation would cost between $12 million and $18 million to complete.

“You’re looking at a relatively small expenditure when you look at the cost of the renovations of the bridges,” said Cambridge Mayor David Maher. “It would cost more to do it afterwards than it would if it were part of the bridge renovation.”

The Cambridge City Council voted unanimously April 7 in support of a policy order that urges the state to include the underpasses in the plan. Maher, a co-sponsor of the order along with Councilor Denise Carlone, said that even though the underpasses would be on the Boston side of the river, they would benefit Cambridge residents.

Carlone said his only regret is that advocates are only pushing for underpasses on the Boston side of the bridge, when he said it would be great to have it on both sides. von Tscharner said they would have to build into the water on the Cambridge side of the river, but would only have to do so in one spot along the Boston side.

“We’ve realized that it can be accomplished on the Boston side, but to have it on both sides of the river would not only be technically very difficult, but it would cost twice as much,” von Tscharner said.

Because the Western Avenue and River Street bridges won’t be completed in time to take advantage of the Accelerated Bridge Program funds, Maher said the state would have to look for other funding sources. The bridge renovation plans were approved before the state enacted its Healthy Transportation Directive in 2013. Maher said the policy is intended to value all modes of transportation equally.

Verseckes said MassDOT has given “strong consideration” to the notion of adding underpasses at the three bridges and were designing the renovation of the bridges in a manner that “would not preclude” underpasses in the future, specifically by moving the utilities in the bridge so that the underpasses could be built.

With 5,416 bridges under MassDOT’s purview and 200 structurally deficient bridges slated to be complete renovation, Verseckes said that only represents one-third of the total need that exists.

“This makes it difficult to justify using (Accelerated Bridge Program) money for underpasses in Boston that serve a recreational purpose, when the need for funds to upgrade key bridges on the remaining 400-plus other bridges around the commonwealth that are structurally deficient exists,” Verseckes said.

Carlone said the state shouldn’t be so short-sighted and should balance the needs of bikers commuting into the city along the path with a holistic look at multi-modal transportation. With more people walking and cycling than ever before, Maher said it was no longer a question of whether these changes would be necessary.

“These are vital infrastructure changes and investments that we know need to be made,” Maher said. “They have to happen, so it’s now a question of when they’re going to happen.”


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