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Starts & Stops

Advocacy for bridge underpasses could reach critical mass

By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / June 12, 2011

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Last winter, I wrote about the campaign to add underpasses beneath three bridges being rebuilt across the Charles River, so that walkers, bicyclists, and joggers will no longer need to fight traffic where the bridges intersect with the paths along the water.

The Department of Transportation was reluctant to entertain the idea, saying the underpasses would make design and construction more challenging and could add a few years and $10 million or more to the estimated $80 million rehabilitation of the Western Avenue, River Street, and Anderson Memorial bridges.

The Anderson is first up, and the underpass campaign appeared to suffer a critical blow in March when state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Richard K. Sullivan Jr. told MassDOT it did not need to study underpasses for the Anderson, in the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act certificate Sullivan issued for the project.

But the campaign, led by the Charles River Conservancy, is undaunted. It continues attracting support from residents, elected officials, and nonprofit groups and has succeeded in bringing Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey B. Mullan and other MassDOT leaders to the table. They first met last month and have another meeting planned a week from tomorrow.

The list of supporters includes US Representative Michael Capuano, 15 state legislators from surrounding districts (five senators, 10 representatives), and organizations as varied as the Sierra Club of Massachusetts, the Charles River Alliance of Boaters, and Boston University’s student government. In May, the Boston City Council joined its Cambridge counterpart in passing a supporting resolution.

“We continue to advocate for the underpasses because we feel there’s so much political support and support from the advocacy groups,’’ said Renata von Tscharner, the architect and urban planner who leads the Charles River Conservancy, which works to enhance the 20-mile riverside park loop.

The conservancy has engaged engineers, designers, and preservationists to prepare renderings of underpasses that would be inviting and in harmony with the historic architecture. And it is making the case for MassDOT to consider some, if not all, of the underpasses.

It remains a tough sell. The bridges are being built under the Accelerated Bridge Program, which emphasizes efficiency in restoring Massachusetts’ decrepit spans, and the state does not exactly have a lot of extra cash for transportation projects.

But the advocates say the cost in time and money now will more than pay off in the 50- to 75-year planned lifespan of the rebuilt bridges, making it safer and more pleasant for commuters and exercisers to travel by foot or bike along the river.

“I’m hopeful,’’ said Representative Martha M. Walz of Boston, one of several lawmakers to meet with Mullan and von Tscharner. “The secretary is clearly willing to listen and engage in further conversation, and that’s always a good thing.’’

Amtrak to begin Boston leg of rail tie replacement plan

Amtrak’s ongoing Northeast Corridor tie replacement project moves into Boston this weekend, with three months of work scheduled for the most congested section of railroad in the state: The Providence “main line,’’ where Amtrak trains as well as the Needham, Stoughton, Providence, Franklin, and Fairmount commuter rail lines converge on the way in and out of South Station.

Amtrak is replacing 38,000 ties along a 4.2-mile span that has three parallel tracks, each of which will be out of service for a month. The reduced capacity means commuters will see an adjusted schedule starting tomorrow. None of the morning peak-hour trains will stop at Ruggles, some trains have been combined (the 6:45 and 7:30 a.m. trains from Needham Heights will now be one very long train leaving at 7:05), and some have been retimed to add a few minutes to the schedule. Riders should also be prepared for delays.

Crossties, traditionally made of wood, hold the metal rails in place and maintain the appropriate track gauge. Amtrak, like the MBTA and others, bought concrete ties from Rocla Concrete Tie, Inc., that were marketed as an economical, longer-lasting, and environmentally friendly alternative to treated wood but that began to crumble well short of their advertised life, forcing railroad speed restrictions before replacements could be installed.

As Old Colony line riders well know, the T is about halfway through a project to replace more than 150,000 Rocla ties on 57 miles of South Shore commuter rail track, disrupting off-peak and weekend service. That project is costing taxpayers and fare payers $91.5 million, including $35 million for materials. The T last year sued Rocla in Suffolk Superior Court for negligent misrepresentation, unfair or deceptive trade practices, and breach of warranty.

The case has been moved to federal court and is proceeding with deliberate speed. Rocla contests the suit but says at most it should owe $9 million, the amount the T paid for the original ties in the mid-1990s.

In other transportation news:
■ Many readers have written to say that they find the MBTA’s blanket pricing for commuter parking lots nonsensical. They suggest the cash-strapped T would be wise to lower prices in some areas to encourage park-and-ride commuting and raise it in high-demand locations where lots and garages fill by sunrise.

MBTA General Manager Richard A. Davey is listening. Though he has no plans to raise prices, the T will lower prices by $1 (from $4 to $3 a day) starting July 1 in a pilot program at seven commuter rail stations (Kingston, Halifax, Campello, Fairmount, Hyde Park, Newburyport, and Lynn) and three Mattapan trolley line stops (Butler, Milton, and Mattapan). Monthly parking there will be reduced from $70 to $60. If the price reduction boosts ridership and total revenue, expect it to be expanded.

At the same time, the T is also taking more steps in its effort to discourage scofflaws who fail to pay at the honor system lots, as previously reported.

In those gate-free lots, where riders are supposed to slip money into slots or pay by phone using a credit card, the surcharge for failing to pay will be raised from $1 to $21 on July 1.

With repeat offenders, the T has also started notifying the Registry of Motor Vehicles to place a hold on license and registration renewal.

■ Motorists, hockey fans, and close watchers of the Boston skyline may have noticed that the illuminated cables of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge have turned a different hue, their blue glow now a Bruins gold for the Stanley Cup finals. Or, what was supposed to be Bruins gold.

“Unfortunately, the yellow light does not display well from a distance, but it does not dissuade our support for the Bruins,’’ Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey B. Mullan said last week, in his monthly report to the Department of Transportation’s board. Lenses on the lights control the color, and the Bruins paid for the installation.

■ The envelope please . . . Massachusetts won an award last week from the Northeast Association of State Transportation Officials for last year’s rapid replacement of the bridge that carries Route 2 over Route 2A in Phillipston, in the “Innovative Management’’ category’s small-projects division, for projects of $25 million or less.

Pennsylvania and Rhode Island won in the medium ($26 million to $199 million) and large ($200 million or more) divisions, respectively. Innovative Management is one of three categories, along with “On Time’’ and “Under Budget’’ awards.

Now the state advances to compete in August in the national finals of the America’s Transportation Awards, sponsored by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, AAA, and the US Chamber of Commerce.

The states vie for pride and $10,000 prizes that can be donated to charity or used for transportation-related scholarships.

The Phillipston bridge was replaced in a matter of days in a method similar to that now being used to replace 14 overpass bridges carrying Interstate 93 in Medford, with a precast slab hauled into place by tracks, rollers, jacks, and cranes.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.