Is State Violating Bridge Repair Law?

April 14, 2010

How Can We Avoid Ending Up With Bridges That Are Structurally Sound But Functionally Obsolete?

State Highway Division officials say that the Accelerated Bridge Program legislation requires that they focus on fixing structural deficiencies.  Their mantra is “no scope creep, no schedule creep, on time and within budget” meaning that roadways around the bridges are not to be dealt with and bicycle or pedestrian facilities only added if extra funds allow.  Advocates say that the ABP legislation has significant flexibility and that subsequent passage of the state’s transportation restructuring act totally changes the context for bridge and road work – making improved mobility for all the core value and therefore requiring that bicycling and walking be given equal consideration as car traffic from conceptual design to construction.

Who is right?  Give the speed at which the bridge work is supposed to occur, the decision will have to come from the new MassDOT Board or from Secretary Mullan.  But the Board tends to see itself as a fiscal watchdog rather than a policy-making body – so the ball is in the Secretary’s court! 

THE LAW & THE VISION

  • The 2008 enabling legislation for the ABP authorizes work for the “repair of or improvements to bridges and approaches.”  (emphasis added)  Although it was prompted by the emergency need to prevent a structural failure like the one that killed 13 people in Minneapolis, and it calls for reports assuring that the work is “on time and within budget,” it sets no deadlines other than by implication:  it requires the Oversight Council to give twice-annual updates for the eight years following enactment (until 2016).
  • In 2009, the Legislature’s creation of a unified Department of Transportation significantly changed the context for the ABP.  MassDOT’s mission is to build a unified transportation system serving “all users, including individuals of all ages and abilities, pedestrians, bicyclists, transit vehicles and riders, and motorists.”  Specifically, it “shall…ensure the implementation of measures that facilitate equitable bicycle and pedestrian access in the planning and development of all transportation facilities….[and the creation of] complete streets.”
  • As of March 2010, USDOT policy explicitly states that walking and bicycling must get equal consideration with other transportation modes on all transportation projects, including “new, rehabilitated, and limited-access bridges” and during maintenance projects, and NOT be treated as secondary amenities to be dealt with as resources permit after providing for motorized travel needs.

It appears that ABP legislation provides clear authority, reinforced by the restructuring act and now nationally endorsed by federal policy, to treat the bridge program as a chance to improve the regional transportation system for all travelers.  Accomplishing this means that planning for full and equal access by all modes – pedestrians, cyclists, transit, and cars – must occur from the beginning of conceptual planning and then be fully integrated into the design and construction.  Once the desired uses of the road or bridge were determined it would be possible to design the pavement markings and underlying structural changes needed to support that functionality.

The goal of transportation construction is not just preventing people from falling into the river, the ultimate goal is making sure that they can get around safely and conveniently no matter what travel mode they use – foot, bicycle, bus, T, or car.  MassDOT is supposed to be working towards full mobility for all, with an emphasis on non-polluting, energy efficient, health-promoting non-motorized facilities – requiring significant redesign not only of the bridge surface but also of the roadways leading to and away from the bridge.   It will neither be a success for the Commonwealth, nor a credit to the state’s leadership, if after spending hundreds of millions of dollars we end up with bridges that are structurally sound but functionally obsolete.

MassDOT’s APPROACH

Instead, the state Highway Division is acting as if fixing structural deficiencies is their primary task.  As one engineer announced at a public meeting, “Work on the approaches (outside of the deck and support structure) is not authorized in the legislation…but, we can see if money is left over for them.” And in the words of another: “Hopefully, this bridge will look like it did in 1925… [but] including ‘extra amenities’, such as bike lanes and wider sidewalks.”

While MassDOT’s ABP designers are aware of the safety problems of weak parapets and curbs on the bridge, not enough attention is being paid to the statistically much greater safety hazards created by the intersections and frontage roads on either side.  After significant pressure from advocates and some noisy public meetings, the ABP designers are finding ways to include wider sidewalks and bike lanes on the bridges and the immediate exits or entry-ways.  But these are usually being dropped in as isolated accessories rather than part of an effort to expand multi-modal mobility around the entire bridge area.  And despite assurances, those modes are not always treated equally from the beginning of conceptual design through the construction period by setting goals (mode splits or level-of-service), going beyond minimum requirements, and rebalancing the burden of needed compromises between non-motorized and motorized modes.

It’s not just the engineers who express this viewpoint, at the April 7th meeting of the MassDOT Board of Directors, Highway Division Paiewonsky and ABP Project Managers Anne Collins reiterated the ABP mantra of “On Time. On Budget” and then said that the 2008 legislation allows “NO scope creep” and “NO time creep” – meaning no work beyond the bridge’s structure, deck, and closely adjacent on/off pavement, and totally finishing by 2016.

In the context of on-going negotiations between community groups, advocates, and municipal representatives with MassDOT, these are preemptive words that challenge consideration to make the Mobility/Healthy Transportation improvements in ABP bridges which are sought by many people.

WHAT IS NEEDED

The state needs to use this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help fix our regional mobility problems — or else we will spend billions of dollars and simply end up no better off than when we started in terms of everyday experience.

  • An explicit commitment to start by setting mode-split and safety goals for all users, then creating a design – after meaningful public input – that accomplishes those goals.
  • A willingness to include the entire approach area, not just the immediate entry/exit space, as part of the ABP study and design area – such as the River Street/Western Ave circuit up to the MassPike exits along with the “frontage roads” on the Boston side.

(It turns out that much of what is needed for safe travel by all is relatively cheap signage, street markings, and some crossing signals!  But this won’t be done if the ABP doesn’t include it.)

  • A willingness to deal with river-bank parkland travel issues and increase safety for joggers, walkers, cyclists, and others, by including passageways through the bridge embankment (as was done at the Eliot Bridge) so that people don’t have to cross busy intersections.  (Repairs also need to be done in a way that does not endanger the many people who boat on the river!)
  • While maintaining the admirable sense of urgency and innovation that energizes the ABP program, take the time to do it right – even if that requires going a bit beyond 2016.
  • The state needs to be more “experimental” – trying out different lane configurations and signage options during construction and then using that knowledge to maximize the multi-modal aspects of the final design.

ADVOCATES PROPOSALS

In the past, state and local officials were able to play pedestrian groups off against cyclists, cyclists against the disabled, and everyone against transit supporters or parkland groups.  But for the past several years, LivableStreets Alliance has been pulling the transportation advocacy community together to present a united front demanding that the Commonwealth begin creating a 21st Century transportation system that has a better balance of facilities for walking, bicycling, transit, and cars.  While differences of emphasis remain, for the first time the advocacy community has been able to collectively create and then push for alternatives to the state’s car-focused plans.  These are some of the key ideas for the Charles River bridges pulled together by LivableStreets Alliance, WalkBoston, MassBike, the Institute for Human Centered Design, Charles River Conservancy, and others.

RIVER STREET / WESTERN AVE CIRCUIT

The River Street/Western Avenue pair of bridges form a complicated circuit, along with the exits and entrances to Storrow Drive and the Mass Pike and the Storrow “frontage roads.”

  • Better pedestrian and bicycle safety and access must be a primary goal of this project, not only on the bridges but to and from them as well – so it is essential that the scope of the project be expanded to include the network of
    intersections and roadways around these bridges.
  • The currently chaotic traffic flow must be better controlled, calmed, and clearly defined to improve safety, particularly through better traffic signals and signage, curb adjustments, and roadway markings.
  • River-bank passageways through the bridge need to be created.

LONGFELLOW BRIDGE

The historic Longfellow Bridge may be an iconic part of Boston’s landscape, but it is also a transportation nightmare — inefficient and dangerous no matter how you are traveling: by foot, on a wheelchair, pushing a stroller, by bike, on the T, or even by car.  A significant increase in bike/ped users along with reduced projections of future car traffic should be the context to a bold design.

  • Much more of the surface area should be devoted to the walking and bicycling both at the middle of the bridge and at the approaches  — perhaps as an extra-wide promenade with fabulous river views, a bike lane buffered from car traffic, more space around the T tracks to allow safe exit in an emergency.
  • According to current traffic counts, there is no reason to have more than one lane of traffic across the center of the bridge in both directions, one lane on three of the entry/exit ramps (going from Charles Circle on to the bridge and in both directions on the Cambridge side), and two lanes from the bridge into Charles Circle – allowing full multi-modal use all day at the price of forcing a few cars to wait for a second green light when entering Charles Circle for about half an hour in the morning and evening.

BU BRIDGE

This is heavily traveled bridge is stuck between two terrible intersections:  the Commonwealth Ave/Turnpike Overpass mess in Boston and the “moibus strip” rotary in Cambridge.

  • While structural repair on the Boston side will have to wait for another time, ABP plans should assume that those future improvements will incorporate a true multi-modal solution.
  • And the Cambridge side needs to be dealt with as part of the ABP – even if only with barrels, bollards, and signage.

CRAIGE (SCIENCE MUSEUM) BRIDGE & ROADWAY

Located between the still-inaccessible North Point Park and the high-traffic Science Museum, the role of this once-vital route into Boston from the north has been at least partially replaced by the new Zakim Bridge.

  • The narrowness of the draw-bridge choke point can not be allowed to control what kind of facilities are included in the rest of the road segment.
  • The Leveret Circle connection has to be at least studied to see if new road markings can improve coherence and safety for everyone.

ANDERSON (HARVARD SQ.) BRIDGE

A key connection between Harvard’s Cambridge and (future) Boston campuses, this bridge already carries as many, or more, pedestrians and bicyclists as cars.  The proposed three-car-lane design is sufficient, even for the heavier north-bound traffic, although the intersections (especially in Boston) need tighter corners, improved car flow controls, and better ped/bike crossings with count-down walk signals.

  • No-turn-on-red should be posted on all intersections and left turns from Memorial Drive prohibited.
  • A river-bank passage-way through the bridge would make it significantly safer for all.
 
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