Friday, March 16, 2012

River Street bridge replacement

A bit over a year ago, back when winter still meant snow on the ground, I decided one day to take the River Street bridge on my way from Cambridge to Brighton. This bridge combines with the nearby Western Avenue bridge to form the primary link between these two neighborhoods across the Charles River. Both were built at the same time, approximately 80-90 years ago, and are considered "historic." On the Cambridge side, River Street intersects with the arterial road Memorial Drive. On the Brighton side it is Cambridge Street intersecting with Soldier's Field Road. When the Mass Pike extension was built to Allston, the entrance and exit ramps were built very close to the River Street bridge intersection. Although this corridor was the historical link between Cambridge and Brighton, at the time there was little thought given to pedestrian safety, as they did not expect people to ever walk here again.

Looking at Cambridge Street overpass from the River Street bridge

Bearing this in mind, I trudged across the bridge in the heavy snow and, dodging traffic from the highway ramp, managed to reach the foot of the Cambridge Street I-90 overpass. At this point, I was standing in snow up to my knees, realizing that this sidewalk would never be plowed. I wasn't even sure where it was, exactly. What's worse, is that I could not ascend the gradient in this weather, it was too slippery. Maybe, instead, I could climb up the little bit of 'greenspace' that formed a berm for the overpass. As I considered my options, suddenly, a passing car opened its window and the driver yelled out: "WHAT are you doing?!"

It dawned on me just how screwed up this situation was. Here I am, attempting to travel along a path that has existed since the 18th century, but because I am on foot, I am now out of place.

As it turns out, I am not the only one who felt this was wrong. MassDOT is proposing to rehabilitate the Western Avenue and River Street bridges that connect Brighton and Cambridge, as part of its Accelerated Bridge Program. They held their Allston/Brighton public meeting today. Much of what was said by the public officials is contained in the PDFs, as they mostly stood up and read from the slides (bad presentation skills!). One of the main points of their plan is to fix all of the pedestrian and bicycle safety infrastructure on and surrounding the bridges. During the public comment phase, many people stood up and expressed how grateful they were that MassDOT was making such a strong effort to accommodate all modes of travel in their plans.

The strongest criticism came from those who were disappointed that the agency had decided to forgo the inclusion of pedestrian tunnels for the Charles river pathways. It's a separate issue from the traffic above, but would require fill and therefore must be subject to a "historic landmark" review process and permitting. Similarly, several people were in favor of removing the overbearing concrete barriers that serve as a railing; but they too are protected as a "historic design feature" of the bridges, although their purpose is to block views of the river (which apparently was badly polluted back then). There were many other comments, some to do with the specifics of how light phases, or bicycle lanes were going to be designed. But overall, the impression I got is that MassDOT wants to do the right thing and make this combination of bridges be accessible to all whether they be driving, walking or bicycling.

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