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Starts & Stops

Improvement creates problem on Storrow

The split for Fenway and Newton on Storrow Drive has caused chaos for drivers unfamiliar with the reconfiguration. The split for Fenway and Newton on Storrow Drive has caused chaos for drivers unfamiliar with the reconfiguration. (Yoon S. Byun/ Globe Staff)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / May 23, 2010

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If you’ve driven Storrow Drive westbound in the past year, you’ve probably noticed a change: where there used to be two lanes heading for Newton, and one splitting off for Fenway/Kenmore, there is now one lane heading for Newton and two exiting for the Fenway/Kenmore area.

Several readers have e-mailed to complain about the chaos and backups they say this change has caused, as drivers unfamiliar with the change swerve across lanes, and as evening rush-hour traffic backs up toward Beacon Hill.

A reader named Jeff says it now takes him 15 minutes to travel the eight-tenths of a mile between the Fiedler Footbridge and the Mass Ave. bridge. And an e-mailer named Patrick writes, “I hope you investigate, and bash whomever decided on this mess.’’

A physician at Massachusetts General Hospital e-mailed in the hope that, short of a change to the configuration, police might help.

“There are MANY people who take the middle lane, which is supposed to exit at Fenway, then thrust themselves into the far right lane,’’ he wrote, “almost causing accidents, and certainly inciting tempers.’’

The Department of Conservation and Recreation — which manages the road, because it runs along the Esplanade — temporarily closed the middle lane last summer while doing work on the overpass (known as Bowker Ramp H) that carries Kenmore and Fenway traffic from Beacon and Boylston streets to Storrow Drive westbound, said Wendy Fox, a DCR spokeswoman.

That temporary closure reduced Storrow outbound to one lane, alleviating what had been a highly accident-prone area immediately to the west, where the overhead Bowker onramp connects with the traffic racing around the bend on Storrow.

After the construction ended in September, DCR decided to leave the Storrow westbound restriction and switch the reopened middle lane to exiting traffic.

The verdict is still out on whether the new benefits beyond the ramp are worth the new problems at the approach. DCR plans to hire a traffic consultant this summer to review the situation, Fox said.

Boston isn’t the only metropolis combating mass transit troubles

Crumbling rail ties. Faulty power systems. Dirty stations. Balky escalators. Reduced train speeds. Yawning deficits. Demands to expand, even when there isn’t nearly enough money to maintain the current system. Sound familiar?

It’s the story of the T . . . and of just about every other public transportation system in the country. Leaders of five of the nation’s biggest (and oldest) transit agencies — numbers two, four, five, six, and nine in ridership — gathered at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston last week and swapped stories about the shared pressures and challenges they face.

“We’re pretty much in 20th-century armor trying to do a 21st-century fight,’’ said Beverly A. Scott, head of Atlanta’s MARTA. Chicago’s Richard L. Rodriguez, on the job a year, described a “baptism by fire.’’

And yet, these five systems — Chicago, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, and Atlanta — manage to move nearly 6 million riders a day to and from work and around their cities with relatively few major incidents.

“When you look at the conditions of the systems they operate and the millions of safe trips that they turn out every day, they really are miracle workers,’’ said Peter M. Rogoff, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, speaking at the Boston summit.

The panelists came together at the invitation of the MBTA Advisory Board and the think-tank MassINC to talk about working together, hoping to start a national conversation to address problems that, to date, have been considered — and insufficiently addressed — at local and regional levels.

Beyond the commiserating and the back-patting, they talked covetously of a European climate in which heavy gas taxes and congestion tolls discourage driving and help subsidize sleek and efficient rail systems. And they appealed — with congressman John W. Olver, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, listening in the audience — for federal help to address a maintenance and upkeep backlog that the Federal Transit Administration has estimated at $50 billion for the nation’s seven largest transit systems.

The big-city transit officials agreed that they need to do a better job telling the story of mass transit: the vital role it plays in local economies, the environmental benefits, the financial challenges that, they say, stem more from structural deficits and a lack of dedicated taxes than from waste, fraud, or employee indifference.

“Most people do not have any clue about transit economics 101,’’ Scott said. “We have not done a good job at all in terms of communicating the who, the what, the how.’’

The other general managers sounded similar notes, including the MBTA’s Richard A. Davey Jr., who proposed addressing a “credibility gap’’ with more visible management and performance measurements, and by engaging the public with more behind-the-scenes tours.

Davey’s predecessor and the panel moderator, Daniel A. Grabauskas, said an “It’s a Wonderful Life’’ moment might help, if only an angel Clarence could descend and offer the citizenry a glimpse of what urban life would be like without public transit.

Those who previously took their water for granted experienced something similar with the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s recent rupture, Davey observed. “I’m not concocting a T crisis, don’t worry,’’ he said. “But that’s one way to get your message out: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’’

Rogoff offered some frank low-cost advice: “Paint is cheap,’’ he said, proposing a way to promote unglamorous, but inexpensive, bus routes when there is little money to fund rail expansion.

“If you take a bus and you paint it a different color, you can call it a ‘special bus,’ ’’ he said. “And if you have a special bus, you can then paint a lane on a roadway that the taxpayers have already paid to build, and call it a ‘busway.’ ’’

Throw in “signal preemption’’ — the power for buses to change traffic lights — and you have a sleek, effective bus-rapid transit system at low cost, Rogoff said.

He also encouraged the local officials to “have the guts to say no’’ to expansion before maintenance, and to “speak truth to power.’’ He lauded Scott, who painted buses in the MARTA system with red Xs to educate the public about what service would be eliminated while Georgia’s lawmakers starved Atlanta’s transit system.

“I sometimes have this fantasy that many decades from now, when God calls them home, the state legislators from Georgia will go to the pearly gates and discover that the person who’s either going to let them into heaven or not is Beverly Scott,’’ he said.

Happier medium reached on Green Line extension beyond Lechmere

The Green Line extension beyond Lechmere has been eagerly awaited in Somerville for years, for its anticipated environmental, economic, and quality of life benefits, and for its power to right a transportation wrong: New England’s densest city supports two noisy elevated highways and the T’s massive commuter rail maintenance yard but has just one rail stop (Davis), even though multiple rail lines slice through it.

That’s why the state’s proposal to couple the Green Line extension with construction of a 24-hour, 11-acre storage-and-maintenance facility for 80 Green Line light rail cars smack in the Inner Belt and Brickbottom areas — where homes were razed decades ago in anticipation of the never-built Inner Belt Highway around Boston — has stung so much, generating resistance and activism in the city, making the extension bittersweet, and threatening to delay its 2014 completion.

But that all changed last Monday when state officials revised their plans, deciding instead to place the Green Line facility adjacent to the Boston Engine Terminal, the already existing commuter rail maintenance facility in East Somerville. The state had resisted that option for many reasons, including that it required the taking of about 10 acres of warehouse property; Somerville resisted the state’s preferred option as cheaper but shortsighted, preventing redevelopment of Brickbottom-Inner Belt, where local officials envision another Kendall Square, boosted by new transit.

City officials, activists, state lawmakers, Department of Transportation leaders, and US Representative Mike Capuano all celebrated the reversal as a partnership and an illustration of a more flexible approach at DOT since the state’s transportation agencies were overhauled and reorganized last year.

“This is a momentous decision,’’ Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone said in a statement. “Today we’re significantly closer to achieving the better, brighter, more connected future we envision for our city.’’

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

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