I'm well overdue on an update on the progress of the Casey replacement project. Hopefully, this update will get you up to speed and motivate you to get involved since we're at the point where public input will start to sway and shape the opinions of those that will ultimately decide what happens here.
I was chosen to be on the Working Advisory Group (WAG) for this project back in April, representing the Boston Cyclists Union, JP Bikes, and other nearby neighborhood cycling groups. Since then there have been eight WAG meetings and three public meetings. The early focus has been to first agree on goals and objectives, including some means for measuring how well the design alternatives would meet those objectives. More recently, we talked about elements and sub-elements of designs to narrow down options from which to create three (now four) "draft alternatives". This is the stage we're at now, and these draft alternatives will be shown at the public meeting on Tuesday, Sep. 13 (details below).
These four alternatives are essentially variations on two designs, with the main feature of each being the presence or absence of a new overpass (or bridge). This has not surprisingly been the main theme of the debate for months, although the consultant team has done a good job of steering us towards the issues that inform the question of whether there should be an overpass or not. Even so, the maturity of the designs now enable a pretty accurate look at the tradeoffs, so it's appropriate for this debate to begin. However, this bridge debate has shadowed the importance of some proposed surface level improvements to both Washington St (on the Roslindale side) as well as Shea Circle at the entrance to Franklin Park. These designs are especially relevant to cyclists and pedestrians, and are shown in some of the alternatives but not others, so consider these areas carefully.
The four alternatives were presented to us at our July 27 meeting, with some refinements shown at the end of the August 17th meeting. Some street level visuals of the area were made for us and shown at our 8/31 meeting. Here are links to the pdf documents:http://web.massdot.net/CaseyOverpass/downloads/presentation_072711.pdfhttp://web.massdot.net/CaseyOverpass/downloads/presentation_081711.pdfhttp://web.massdot.net/CaseyOverpass/downloads/presentation_083111.pdfOne cyclists view of the design alternativesBridge/no bridge, making left turns
Both at-grade (meaning: "no bridge") alternatives feature the so-called "bow-tie" design that moves left turns for east/west bound car traffic away from the main intersections and into u-turns to the far east and west sides of the area (7/27 starting at page 27). Thus, cyclists on the roadway making these lefts would be expected to either use the bow-ties, or make the so called "Copenhagen left", which is to stay to the right and stop on the far corner, and then wait for the light to turn green to finish the left turn. The bridge options both have dedicated left turns and fewer lanes to cross when merging to those left turn lanes (7/27 page 14). Both options feature off-street bike paths that merge with the pedestrian sidewalks into wide shared crosswalks (7/27 page 78), so the left turn issues are more for the "vehicular" cyclists among us. It's also important to note that for all of the designs there are no turn restrictions for cars or bikes when going in the north/south direction at either South/Washington, or Washington/Hyde Park Ave.Riding/walking on the bridge
For the bridge designs, the discussion points around what kind of bike and pedestrian accommodations should be on the bridge have focused on the wider shadows and increased cost of widening the bridge for what is presumed to be a much smaller number of users. Also, good access to these amenities would require having the bridge split either towards each end only (8/31 page 19) or for its whole length (7/27 page 8), both of which increase complexity and cost. Most members of the WAG prefer to only accommodate cyclists on the shoulders of the bridge, and having no sidewalk at all. These WAG members, who include some parks people and pedestrian advocates, are confident that the surface level paths and lanes are adequate or preferable, and value the reduced shadows. However, Jeffrey Ferris from Ferris Wheels is a strong advocate for enabling cyclists to ride on the bridge and strongly prefers at least a split bridge on the west side of the bridge, enabling easy access to the bridge from those exiting the Arboretum at the Forest Hills gate. The formal BCU position is that all new road infrastructure must accommodate cyclists and pedestrians equally and thus there should be a separated cycletrack or shared path on the bridge, should there be one. I agree with this on principle but I'm a bit torn on the application of that rule here. I'd rather we had no bridge at all so hopefully the point will be moot.North/South approaches to Forest Hills
I took a survey of cyclists a few months ago asking what they didn't like about cycling in the area and the biggest complaint was not with the bridge itself, but with Washington St. and Hyde Park Ave on either side of the T-station. The lack of bike lanes, combined with the buses, taxis, cars dropping off transit riders, and general aggressiveness of the drivers was and is a nightmare. A close second was the intersections with New Washington, which are very wide and have no lane markings, making left turns sketchy.
One might think that a bridge replacement project wouldn't include improvements to roads that approach the bridge area, but the team has assured us that this is the case. One of our "focus areas" has been Washington St on the Roslindale side (near the Asticou neighborhood). One idea proposed for this section is to widen the corridor, allowing for bike lanes and/or shared paths on either side, and additional drop-off areas and taxi stands (7/27 page 41). These lanes and paths would be a huge improvement that should attract many more cyclists from the South, for both commuting and recreation, since it would connect the existing bike lanes on Washington south of Ukraine St with the Southwest Corridor park, and Centre/South St. in JP. However, to widen the corridor, a redesign of that side of the T-station would be required, moving the bus platforms from where they are to further south where there is currently a parking lot. There is some fear from transit advocates that this will impact bus operations in a negative way.
My big concern is that these Washington St improvements won't happen if a bridge option is chosen. The thinking is that the redesigned surface streets in conjunction with the bridge should alleviate some of the traffic on Washington St (this is my interpretation of why anyway). They don't want us talking about money, but as the designs indicate (note that only the at-grade options show a re-configured Washington St), it's likely that the bridge itself would preclude these surface improvements due to the much higher cost of the bridge structure. They've told us that there will be tradeoffs related to cost. This presents another big reason for preferring the at-grade option.
Regrettably, no similar improvements for the Hyde Park Ave side (which is actually also called Washington St as it passes by the T-station) are in any of the designs. Early in the process, the WAG was asked to narrow down the design process to three focus areas. One was the whole New Washington corridor where the current overpass sits, one was Shea Circle by Franklin Park, and the other was Washington St on the Roslindale side. It wasn't clear (to me at least) early in the process that these three areas would be the only ones that would receive any attention, although that does seem to be the case. I don't think there are any WAG members representing residents that live on the streets that rise towards the cemetery in that area (Weld Hill, Tower, and Woodlawn), nor is there anyone from the Bourne neighborhood. So it's probable that the lack of interest in this area stems solely from a lack of representation. So for cyclists trying to get through here from the south, your best bet might be to cross over to Washington at Ukraine and take whatever lanes/paths get put down there (we hope).Shea Circle/Square
There is almost unanimous approval for turning the circle into a more conventional intersection with pedestrian and bike paths surrounding it, and bike lanes through it as well (8/17 page 76). It would improve pedestrian and bicycle access immensely, organize traffic better, and reclaim a fair amount of greenspace for the parks and for the neighborhoods immediately south of that area. Due to this general agreement and some lack of familiarity with that side, I won't describe it in much more detail here. I'm a big believer that all the great stuff you do in the rest of the corridor is somewhat wasted if you don't also improve the approaches to the area, and the connections to nearby amenities such as Franklin Park, the Arboretum, and the Cemetery. So I'm in favor of this as well.
(some general commentary, not specifically cycling related)Bridge or no bridge, as related to traffic, and the socio-economic health of the neighborhood
At the risk of oversimplification, I would say the bridge advocates are very worried about congestion and spillover into the neighborhoods, and are confident or hopeful that the presence of a new overpass will not discourage economic development or the formation of the lively pedestrian atmosphere that feeds that development. The advocates for the at-grade option think that even a nicer, lower, shorter bridge will still make the area feel like an auto-centric highway that people and neighborhoods will turn their back on or just pass through, as they do now, stalling any real improvements to the area. The at-grade advocates are not insensitive to worries of congestion and cut-through traffic, but are encouraged by a statement from the consultant team that all of the options should be able to effectively handle traffic.
I'm in this latter camp. I've been riding around the city looking at parks and mixed use districts that are in the vicinity of bridges, and those that are in the vicinity of some high traffic multi-lane intersections. I've yet to find an under-bridge or even a near-bridge environment that I would say was a lively pedestrian and shopping district. Something about hearing cars above me that says "highway". Car noise tends to reflect harshly under bridges. I don't want cut through traffic or endless backups and pollution, but as a cyclist that just traded a long car commute for a reasonable bike commute, I value the efficiency and self sufficiency of local economies where people live, shop, work, and take transit. There's a trend in this country to not replace the oversized bridges that were built in so many urban areas 50 years ago. The team presented numerous comparable projects throughout the country (see 8/17 presentation), and its clear that bridge removal has either revitalized areas, or left them in a better position to attract development. It's my impression that even the bridge advocates don't want a bridge simply because they love bridges, they just feel that the bridge offers them more certainty that the traffic will either improve or not get worse. Even so, if there have to be some tradeoffs, I would trade the easy movements needed to support a regional economy for a chance to improve the economy local to Forest Hills. Regarding traffic
As for traffic, the fear that the at-grade option will be inferior in traffic handling is difficult to overcome without some hard data. It's not surprising that many think that moving the bridge traffic to the surface will not adversely impact drivers. However, it should be pointed out that the current under-bridge network is overly complicated, and that a better-designed simpler interchange may be equal to or better in terms of "level of service" (a term used to describe throughput, convenience, and wait times). The team has not presented accurate data to this point, mainly because the effort required to get accurate predictions can only be justified if done on designs that are fairly mature and encompass the entire area, so it's been somewhat of a chicken and egg problem on getting these predictions. However, we're at that point on maturity of the designs, so you can expect accurate data at this public meeting (I think). Recently, however, the team did say that both the bridge and at-grade alternatives handle traffic equally well (I forget their exact term). I'm presuming this was based on some preliminary analysis. So this is encouraging.
However, to step back a bit, the larger questions around traffic revolve around what traffic volumes we want to design for in the first place. Should we design for current volumes? projected volumes? Should we design for rush hour volumes to the detriment of the non-rush hour uses of the area? Are we OK with inconveniencing through traffic for the potential betterment of the area? It should also be noted that, like it or not, the demolition and construction will take long enough that many drivers will be forced to alter their long-term commuting patterns simply because of the inconveniences caused by the years of construction. When the project is finally complete, the roads might be overbuilt for the current demand (although you can bet that demand would eventually increase to fill capacity). Final thoughts
One thing to feel good about is that no matter what design gets chosen, it will be much nicer. That said, it can only get better. The new greenspace that will be created in both designs is a very good thing. One thing to not feel great about is that it will get worse before it gets better - this is a huge and messy project that will take years! As for the bridge question, in a survey done several weeks ago the WAG was evenly split on preference for bridge or at-grade. I think people are coming around to prefer the at-grade, now that we're seeing visuals on what the different designs will look like from ground level (also to be shown on Tuesday). However, if you agree (or disagree), you need to speak your mind. The WAG's job is not to vote on a design, but to advise on the community's concerns and desires. Input from large quantities of residents is what will influence the ultimate decision the most.
The questions to ask yourself are the questions they've been asking us: Ideally, what do you want Forest Hills to be? What activities should happen there? How should it look and feel? Whom should it serve better? What will best serve the local community? Are you OK with potentially inconveniencing regional commuters for the sake of bettering the local environment? What would it take for you to bike through here more, or even better, to stop and look around? Which alternative is most compatible with the development of the multitude of available parcels that has been so slow to develop? How important are those Washington St. and Shea Circle improvements? Think about what you love about JP, and then apply that when thinking about what's best.
I'm a fan of the at-grade options, but you should consider your answers to all of these questions and discuss the issues with your neighbors to decide for yourselves. JP is a special place where personal discussions among neighbors have done more to shape the neighborhood than probably anything else. Most of all, come to the public meetings and voice not only your concerns but your hopes. Public meeting details
English High School Auditorium
144 McBridge St.
Tuesday Sep. 13th
5:30-6pm: Open house (visuals, with team members available to answer questions)
6-8:30: Public information meeting