For future of the Longfellow, task force crunching the numbers


A historic bridge too far gone?

by Staff Writers, the Boston Globe

The Longfellow Bridge is many things to many people – historic landmark, visual icon, engineering marvel, symbol of neglect, and centerpiece of the state’s $3 billion Accelerated Bridge Program. But just how many people use it?

Some would have you believe that the bridge carries 49,500 automobiles a day – a figure that appears in Wikipedia, in a 2008 press release from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation (at the time, the bridge’s owner and caretaker), and in multiple news articles over the past few years.

In fact, the bridge carries half that many vehicles each weekday, just under 26,000, a figure that drops by a few thousand more when weekends are included. That is the combined traffic for vehicles headed to Cambridge and Boston. But I’m betting that someone once mistook it for the number of vehicles in one direction and doubled it, and that others saw the figure and perpetuated it.

Vehicle traffic on the bridge fell almost every year over the past decade, down from an average weekday high of nearly 31,000 in 2000, according to Central Transportation Planning Staff data.

The state estimates that each vehicle on the bridge carries an average of 1.22 people.

By comparison, about 100,000 riders cross the Longfellow each day on the Red Line, according to the MBTA, making it first and foremost a public transit bridge.

Full-day pedestrian and bicycle estimates are harder to come by but probably number a few thousand.

The figures were presented earlier this summer to the Longfellow task force, convened by the Department of Transportation and scheduled to meet through October.

The task force – which includes transportation officials, civic leaders, representatives of nearby institutions, and leaders of bike, pedestrian, and environmental advocacy groups – is discussing how to balance transit, roadway, bike, and pedestrian needs during the next six years of bridge reconstruction and in the bridge’s final form.

As previously reported, the state – as part of a $3 billion program to repair or replace hundreds of aging bridges – is in the process of spending $300 million or more to shore up the 107-year-old Longfellow for generations to come, a once-a-century investment that naturally has stirred debate.

The bridge for years has been configured to carry two vehicle lanes in each direction, separated by the Red Line tracks, with the Boston-bound road surface widening to three lanes at the Charles Circle approach. The bike paths and sidewalks that flank the roadways are narrow and incomplete. The state initially suggested keeping the same layout with some improvements for bikers and pedestrians, but a network of advocacy groups has called for more dramatic changes, wanting fewer vehicle lanes and wider, more inviting promenades and bike lanes.

It is a debate over how to reconcile the demands of today’s car-centric society with the goals of encouraging more biking, walking, and public transit – goals that have recently been written into state and federal transportation law and policy to promote fitness and quality of life and reduce carbon emissions.

State officials have said they want to make the decision based on facts and analysis, rather than emotional appeals or past practice. The usage figures are part of that, and they include a count of everyone crossing the bridge in both directions in one hour of peak traffic during a recent evening rush: 10,202 Red Line riders; 2,622 vehicle drivers and passengers; 326 pedestrians; and 167 bicyclists.

Three years ago, a civic-minded software company in Seattle called Front Seat introduced, an online calculator that determines a “walkability” score of 0 to 100 for any address based on how close it is to amenities such as coffee shops, grocery stores, and parks.

Since then, the Walk Score calculator has drawn millions of hits, has been incorporated into major real estate websites like Zillow and ZipRealty, and has figured into a growing number of home buyers’ calculations.

Last week, Front Seat launched Transit Score, a related tool that provides 0-to-100 grades measuring how well an address is served by public transportation, for sites in about 30 metropolitan areas, including Boston. That was made possible by the MBTA’s decision to make public the raw data associated with its transit stops, routes, and frequency of service. The state’s open data initiative has also spawned a number of smartphone applications and other tools to help riders quickly access route schedules and bus location times, as previously reported.

Transit Score and Walk Score are each fun to play with for the sake of comparison – does my home rate a 90-to-100 “Rider’s Paradise,” a 0-to-24 “Minimal Transit,” or somewhere in between? – but Front Seat hopes they will also encourage prospective buyers to consider more than a property’s list price, appearance, and floor plan. A calculator on the site estimates average annual costs of transportation associated with a location or for a commute between two locations, for buyers to weigh along with a property’s taxes or estimated utilities.

Front Seat’s calculators are consistent with the work that a number of think tanks and nonprofits have been doing to raise attention to the cost in dollars, time, and stress associated with living in places where most commuting and errands are done by car, to chip away at the drive-until-you- qualify philosophy of home buying.

In this case, the Rockefeller Foundation helped underwrite the Transit Score project as a way to promote goals of environmentally friendly transportation and close-knit neighborhoods.

“Moving farther away does not necessarily equal better value,” said Josh Herst, Front Seat’s chief executive.

Front Seat’s chief technology person, Matt Lerner, added, “We talk a lot about the health benefits of walkable neighborhoods and the environmental benefits, but I really think the financial benefits are going to appeal to everyone.”

Last week I wrote about an effort mounted by a group of Chatham residents and some national nonprofits to try to save the Mitchell River Bridge, a humble span over a saltwater channel that is the last wooden drawbridge in the state and probably the last in the country, according to the Coast Guard and other sources.

The state, as part of the $3 billion Accelerated Bridge Program to rebuild, or replace, hundreds of faulty bridges, wants to replace the structurally deficient Chatham span with a longer-lasting steel and concrete drawbridge that would have wooden accents, promising $11.9 million in state and federal funds. A Friends of the Mitchell River Wooden Drawbridge group, along with allies such as the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is arguing instead for rehabilitation of the existing bridge and seeking to protect it by placing it on the National Register of Historic Places.

State historic preservation officials say the bridge is not worthy of such status because some of its elements have been replaced as recently as 1980. Bridge fans say those replacements were a necessity for a wooden bridge in the saltwater and sea air, that they were historically sensitive, and that they are part of a chain of related repairs dating to the 19th century.

Tuesday night, state and federal officials and local residents gathered for a public session with the Chatham Board of Selectmen, which took a vote for the first time on an issue that has divided the town, with many residents worried about jeopardizing the state and federal funding. The board voted unanimously to endorse the state design.

“What we took from the meeting is the timber appearance of the bridge really matters to people and so . . . we want to make sure there’s as much timber in the visual appearance of the bridge as we can do,” said Luisa Paiewonsky, the state’s highway administrator.

Len Sussman, chairman of the town board, said selectmen were swayed by the financial argument and by what officials call a “context-sensitive design,” instead of a “generic bridge.”

Norm Pacun, head of the friends’ group, called the decision a disappointment but said the group would press on to try to protect the bridge through appeals. “Our efforts right now are to get this decided by the Keeper [of the National Register] as promptly as possible,” he said.

Traffic on the Monsignor O’Brien Highway (Route 28) near the Museum of Science has been a cause for headaches in recent months, but it got worse last week and will become even more snarled in the months ahead.

The jams were a result of lane closures for the $52 million reconstruction of the Craigie Dam Bridge and Craigie Drawbridge, related structures beneath the highway where the Charles River approaches Boston Harbor, said Adam Hurtubise, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation.

The state closed one of three Boston-bound vehicle lanes last week, with the closure scheduled to last until late September, Hurtubise said.

(It also closed the sidewalk on the Charles River side from the Dam Bridge to Leverett Circle.)

More lane closures are expected between November and April, including an extended period when all inbound lanes will be closed, he said.

“We recognize that that’s going to have significant traffic impacts,” said Hurtubise, promising more details ahead.

“We’re working with the city of Cambridge on the detours now. We’re trying to minimize traffic impacts and make the best of a bad situation by keeping Leverett Circle flowing and preventing traffic backups on Storrow Drive,” he said.

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