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Dangerous crossings along the Charles

State prodded to build pedestrian underpasses

State transportation officials concluded it is not feasible to add underpasses during the reconstruction of three bridges over the Charles River, but advocates and legislators are asking them to reconsider. State transportation officials concluded it is not feasible to add underpasses during the reconstruction of three bridges over the Charles River, but advocates and legislators are asking them to reconsider. (Pat Greenhouse/ Globe Staff)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / December 27, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — Shielded from the cold in black running gear, Michal Fabinger interrupted his morning workout along the Charles the other day and extended a gloved finger, pushing the button for the walk signal at Western Avenue and Memorial Drive. It’s something that happens hundreds of times a day even in winter: walkers, bikers, and joggers on one of the region’s most popular recreational paths, stopping to wait for traffic to pass.

And not just any traffic, but cars flooring to beat red lights and jockeying for position on their way to and from Memorial Drive, Storrow Drive, and the Massachusetts Turnpike.

At the Western Avenue and River Street bridges, and again at the Anderson Memorial Bridge, the paths along the Charles River Reservation, on both the Boston and the Cambridge sides, rise from the riverbank to cross the surface roads. But with the state preparing to rehabilitate all three aging spans, local lawmakers and advocates see an opportunity to improve the crossings by routing them through bridge underpasses.

State transportation officials are reluctant to entertain the underpass proposal, citing the difficulty of securing the federal permits needed to disturb parkland and alter the appearance of bridges in the Charles River Basin, a National Register Historic District. They also say planning and building the underpasses would delay the projects and add $10 million or more to the expected $80 million cost.

Local legislators say the state has been too quick to dismiss the idea, given the challenge of crossing those intersections and the projected 75-year lifespan of the rebuilt bridges. They also say the pedestrian and bike improvements would be consistent with recent federal, state, and local policy changes aimed at reversing decades of favoring the automobile over other modes of transportation.

“This is a significant safety issue,’’ said state Representative Martha M. Walz, a Back Bay Democrat whose district spans the river. “We’re building infrastructure for the next 75 years, and we have to look ahead for what we want our 21st-century transportation system to be, and not just rebuild the 20th-century bridges as they are.’’

The Charles River Conservancy, a nonprofit focused on enhancing the 20-mile park loop from Boston Harbor to Watertown, has pined for more underpasses for several years. The road crossings at some bridges are at odds with the otherwise inviting nature of the park, said Renata von Tscharner, the conservancy’s founder and president.

The Western Avenue and River Street bridges date to the 1920s and the Anderson Memorial is a decade older. The state is rebuilding the spans as part of a $3 billion program to address hundreds of neglected, structurally deficient bridges. The state hopes to start construction on the Anderson — which connects Harvard Square with Allston — as early as next year. Construction on the others could follow in 2013, said Adam Hurtubise, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation.

Hurtubise said the state “carefully considered’’ the underpasses before deeming them infeasible. Instead, the state plans streetscape improvements that will make crossing the roads safer. By the Anderson, for example, the plan is to triple the width of the sidewalk on the Allston side of the river for those waiting to cross, and to make the corners more pronounced in an effort to slow turning cars. All of the bridges will also gain bike lanes for cyclists heading across the river.

“We have decided that the improvements we’re going to be making are the more prudent course,’’ Hurtubise said.

Representative Alice K. Wolf, a Cambridge Democrat whose district fans out from the bridges, called those improvements “quite minimal.’’ Wolf said the state should do more to resolve conflicts between cars and path users at the bridges, especially given the stated desire of government officials to shift more people out of automobiles to reduce traffic congestion, carbon emissions, and obesity.

“This is a big environmental issue, it’s a big safety issue, and it’s a big issue for recreation,’’ said Wolf, a former bicycle commuter who started a task force to make bicycling improvements as mayor of Cambridge two decades ago.

At Wolf’s request, the state’s top highway and bridge engineers met with local lawmakers and von Tscharner to discuss the issue.

“I want a second opinion,’’ Walz said. “Thinking about the high benefit of these underpasses, I want to see if there’s another way to get it done rather than just give up.’’

Peter Furth, a Northeastern University civil engineering professor who has studied the Anderson, said that adding an underpass on the Boston side would not pose an unusual challenge, but the Cambridge side is cramped by the presence of a hidden water main. On that side, a wooden boardwalk — like the one beneath the Boston University Bridge — would be easier and cheaper to build, though it would encroach on the river’s rowing traffic, said Furth, an advocate for better bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

“For a lot of people, it’s hard to imagine. They see some obstacles, some difficulties, and they say, ‘We’ve lived without them for ages. Why should we have them?’ ’’ Furth said. But “once you had it, you couldn’t imagine being without it.’’

At each of the three bridges, bikers, runners, and walkers interviewed waiting at the traffic lights recounted near misses with traffic and applauded the possibility of underpasses.

Fabinger, a graduate student in economics out for a morning run, said he thought the popularity of the underpasses would also improve traffic flow by removing bikers and pedestrians from the intersections. “When it’s a rainy day, traffic is really smooth, because there are no bicyclists, and also no runners,’’ he said.

Andrew Phelps, biking east from Harvard Square, lowered the synthetic fabric protecting his face from the wind and grinned. “That’d be awesome,’’ said Phelps, bundled up as he biked toward his job at WBUR, cars zooming past. “The challenge is you either wait at the light like you’re supposed to, looking around when there’s no cars around, or you cross — and the moment you cross, some car comes screaming by.’’

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

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