Bikers, Runners Want Underpasses Along The Charles River For Safer Travel But State Says No Way

 

by Steve Annear, BostInno

When Jon Puz gets out of work late and goes for a run along the Charles River, the last thing he wants to worry about is getting hit by a car when crossing through the busy intersections that separate the trail connectors.

Unfortunately for Puz, and for cyclists and pedestrians who utilize the path that winds along the water in Boston, that problem is all too real.

“I have never been hit, but I have friends who have been hit. It’d be nice to run without having to stop or cross the streets, and I am sure people driving cars would like to drive without having to wait for pedestrians and cyclists,” said Puz.

To try and make outdoor activities safer for everyone, Puz, a member of the Cambridge Running Club, joined an effort started by the Charles River Conservancy to push for the construction of underpasses on several bridges along the river, which would allow runners like him to travel along the trails without interruption.

“It would make so much sense for everyone. The ease and convenience of it would be really nice and it would be much safer,” he said.

Since 2010, members of the Charles River Conservancy, a nonprofit citizens advocacy group, have been spearheading efforts to have the underpasses added to a number of bridges that arepart of the state’s “Accelerated Bridge Program,” a series of fixes funded by federal dollars to revamp crumbling infrastructures all over Massachusetts.

The CRC has focused on the bridges scheduled for repair along the Charles River Basin in Boston, including the Anderson Memorial Bridge, River Street Bridge and the Western Avenue Bridge.

According to Renata von Tscharner, the CRC’s president, the state missed a prime opportunity to add an underpass on the Cambridge side of the Boston University Bridge, during its recent construction, but the group is hopeful they will insert the tunnels into the next round of bridges. They are the Anderson Memorial, the Western Avenue and the River Street bridges . Having underpasses at these bridges will create an uninterrupted pathway of almost 8 miles along the river, she said.

“When these next set of bridges, when those came up, we started to tell [MassDOT] to look at this as a great opportunity to incorporate the underpasses,” she said.

Beyond attending MassDOT hearings and meetings about bridge reconstruction, members of the group reached out to Boston Mayor Thomas Menino for support.

According to a spokesman from Menino’s office, the mayor urged Boston Transportation Commissioner Tom Tinlin to write a letter to MassDOT officials, throwing support behind the underpass proposals.

“The mayor approved and had Commissioner [Tinlin] sign a letter that stated we would like to see the design to allow for an underpass to create one contiguous bike lane around the Charles, and make it so cyclists would not have to cross streets in general traffic,” said Spokesman John Guilfoil.

Von Tscharner said over one-thousand letters were even sent to Governor Deval Patrick, urging him to release funds allocated in the recent transportation bond bill with an amendment that specifies the underpasses.

“More letters are coming his way. Now we want to meet with various appointed officials to make sure all the parts of the administration work together to make this happen,” she said.

Burning Bridges

According to state officials from MassDOT, the underpasses aren’t going to be showing up anytime soon, and runners like Puz and members of his club will have to continue dodging cars when going out for a jog.

“The request for underpasses was something MassDOT took a look at but the two principal issues we’d run in to would be time and money. Taking these bridges out of the ABP to design underpasses would mean we’d have to find funding elsewhere,” said Michael Verseckes, spokesman for MassDOT.

Verseckes said this has been “a hot topic” for MassDOT, but unfortunately they will be “unable to accommodate the request for underpasses.”

“Even if we could keep these in the Accelerated Bridge Program, funding underpasses for these would mean taking other projects off the ABP list elsewhere,” he said. “Also, for these three bridges, since they are rehab jobs, there won’t be any substantial alterations to the bridge abutments, which is where the underpasses would go.”

The denial of underpasses comes at a time when MassDOT is pushing for a “Mode Shift to a Healthier State” and holding conferences on getting more people out on foot and on bikes.

Despite MassDOT’s stance on the bridge reconstruction, which they say is due to time and money constraints, von Tscharner and the Conservancy will continue to push for a piece-meal attempt at getting the underpasses put in.

Von Tscharner said they group has figured out a way for engineers to change the designs of the bridge reconstruction so that space could be allocated for underpasses after the fixes for the Accelerated Bridge Program are made.

“There are meetings in the next few weeks and we will do more renderings, working on a whole variety of efforts to move that forward,” she said. “I think all these voices help and the fact we have found a technical solution to be done in stages and not disrupt the MassDOT program, all these components help that happen.”

Puz and others from Somerville and Cambridge have even enlisted the help of their fellow runners. A website was set up providing information about the push by von Tscharner and the Conservancy, rallying for the changes in the bridge designs before the state gets to work in the spring.

“There are 42 different groups that have signed on to support this, and there is a petition with over 1200 people and counting,” said Puz. “I think these efforts can make a big difference.”

To sign the petition, visit: tinyurl.com/CRunderpasses.

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