Guest Commentary: It’s time to improve river pathways with underpasses

By Renata von Tscharner, Cambridge TAB
Cambridge —

With its eight miles of Charles River frontage, Cambridge enjoys an amenity that rightly makes other cities ‘green’ with envy. Cyclists, skaters, runners and walkers all know about the great pathway along the water, though they also know the frustrations of navigating combative, constricted intersections at each of the bridges that cross the river.  Now, though, as plans advance for major re-construction of three of those bridges, the chance of a lifetime has opened up to build underpasses so cyclists and pedestrians can pass smoothly under the traffic and congestion. But will the Mass. Department of Transportation, which owns the bridges and oversees the renovations, seize that chance?

The Charles River Conservancy has been advocating for underpasses for several years. Now the critical moment has arrived when the planning and permitting of underpasses needs to be incorporated into the design contracts of the Western Avenue and River Street bridges, as well as the Anderson Memorial bridge near Harvard Square, in order not to delay the project or incur higher costs later. If this opportunity slips away, it may be another 70 or 80 years before it comes again.

After thorough review of the bridge and intersection improvements proposed by MassDOT, the Conservancy has opted to focus its advocacy on the Boston side, as space is more limited on the Cambridge shore, and at-grade improvements are easier to achieve.

So far 28 local elected officials support the underpasses, and 35 other advocacy and community groups have also signed up in support. The Cambridge City Council has approved a resolution in favor of the underpasses, as has the Boston City Council. And just a few weeks ago Boston Traffic Commissioner Thomas Tinlin wrote a letter to MassDOT urging them to include underpasses on the Boston side.  As he noted, an uninterrupted pathway of seven miles from the Museum of Science  all the way to the Arsenal bridge  would allow  for easier and safer bicycling for both recreation and commuting.

After months of meetings and hearings MassDOT has agreed at least to reserve space for an underpass at the Anderson bridge, but at the March meeting for the 25 percent design of the River Street and Western Avenue bridges, MassDOT  simply rejected underpasses for those bridges, making their addition at a later stage all but impossible.

Why has MassDOT not included even the possibility of underpasses?  Officials point to cost, though building underpasses during the planned construction would be much cheaper than adding them later. At its public meetings MassDOT cited cost of around $4 million per underpass, but experts have calculated that the underpasses alone could be done for under $1 million.   MassDOT also cites the historic nature of the bridge architecture, but the 1920 design of the bridges can be respected, even with the addition of underpasses. In fact when underpasses for cars were added in the 1960s the Anderson bridge was altered in a much more major way to accommodate turning cars.

With a rapid increase in recreational and commuter biking along the Charles River, the time has come to encourage that change. With rising gas costs and T fares the incentive to commute by healthy, carbon-free vehicles is growing.  Underpasses that bypass difficult intersections would make it safer, quicker and more appealing to cycle. At a time when obesity has grown to epidemic proportions we have good reasons to encourage recreational use of the river paths for runners, walkers, wheelchair users, and skaters, as well as pleasure cyclists. Families with children would find it much safer to take outings along the river without the hazards of crossing traffic.  And the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is in everyone’s interest.

Now the DOT needs to hear from Cambridge residents who will benefit from this amenity. You can learn more about this underpass advocacy by visiting the Conservancy’s website at And you can make your voice heard by writing to Stephanie Boundy at MassDOT,

Renata von Tscharner is the president of the Charles River Conservancy

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