Apologies to those from other cities or who are just reading this blog for health care items, but every now and then I like to dive back into the infrastructure arena. It is actually the field I am trained in, worked in for many years, and taught at MIT. So sometimes I can't resist. One of my colleagues in this field is Fred Salvucci, former MA secretary of transportation. We worked together in state government and also at MIT. We were gabbing about a bunch of topics, and both of us had been thinking about this one, and it just bubbled up. I don't know if he wanted me to make it public, but if you like the idea, give him credit. If you don't, give me the blame.
The topic is Storrow Drive, a road that began in the days of "parkways", pleasure roads that were off-limits to trucks. From the beginning, this one was controversial, in that it was built on state parkland bordering the Charles River. The Charles River basin was itself an early, successful example of regional planning, envisioned by Charles Eliot in the 1890's as a unique combination of urban parkland, flood control, and improved sanitation.
Today, Storrow Drive is a main arterial road, leading traffic to various points of downtown Boston. Most of the time, you are too busy driving around odd curves and on ramps and off ramps and avoiding aggressive Boston drivers to remember that you are on a pleasure vehicle parkway. The physical components of the road have deteriorated over the last 70 years and require major rebuilding. The current controversy is how to carry out the construction and maintain the traffic flow. A plan floated by the state is to take existing parkland -- the Esplanade -- as a temporary route during this construction period. This has raised objections from a variety of quarters. Here is an example published yesterday by two former highly respected parks commissioners, John Sears and Bill Geary.
Opportunities like this come along but rarely, and I think we should ask the question: Do we need Storrow Drive? Please understand that I have not done a detailed technical analysis -- and this idea might be all wet -- but would the City of Boston and the region be better off without a commuters' highway alongside one of the most beautiful portions of the city?
Imagine Boston without Storrow Drive, say from the BU Bridge to the Longfellow Bridge. The horrible gash isolating the Back Bay from the Charles River would be gone. There could be a walk to the river from every street between Charles and St. Mary's.
Impossible, you say? Look at San Francisco, where the Central Freeway was taken down after it was damaged in an earthquake -- or the West Side Highway in New York, which was likewise eliminated when a portion collapsed.
How to do it here? Let's say that a new BU Bridge -- and yes, the BU Bridge will have to be replaced soon because it is in terrible shape -- were connected directly to exit and on ramps from the Mass. Turnpike and then repositioned on the Cambridge side to align with Vassar Street instead of bumping into the Reid Overpass on Memorial Drive so that Turnpike drivers could go directly to their destinations at MIT and Kendall Square. Let's say the Grand Junction railroad bridge were reconfigured as an express bus and pedestrian route from Cambridge to Boston to enhance mass transit, walking, and biking between Cambridge and BU and the Longwood Area. Let's say the Longfellow Bridge -- and yes, this bridge will be rebuilt also -- had revised approaches on the Boston side. You get the idea.
The lesson from San Francisco and New York is that highways like this generate their own traffic. When they are eliminated, the traffic can be directed more rationally, and urban amenities like access to the water, walking, biking, and parklands can be enhanced. Maybe Storrow Drive is really needed. But maybe it isn't. Before we spend millions of dollars duplicating its design flaws, let's ask the question with an open mind and consider the alternatives.