Remember: changing road pricing can have unintended consequences

A few years ago, I wrote about how the 1996 changing of the toll structure of the Turnpike in Newton dramatically affected traffic. In that case, changing the toll by \$1 created a new calculus where many commuters took an alternate route to avoid the toll, leading to traffic on side roads. The state will soon change the toll structure on the Tobin Bridge, going from \$2.50 in one direction to \$1.25 in each way. They claim it will be revenue neutral (it will likely be somewhat revenue positive, actually; see below), but there is not talk of the traffic impact, because the amount you’re charging is the same, so it won’t change the traffic, right?

Wrong. There may be a major traffic impact.

First, the revenue projections. It is very likely that revenue will actually go up. Today, it costs \$2.50 to go south on the Tobin, and it is free going north. For a motorist coming south on 95 in Peabody, it is usually only 2 to 3 minutes longer to loop around on 128 and 93 versus the trip straight down Route 1. (At rush hour, it depends more on traffic, but the majority of travel on the Tobin Bridge is at non-rush times.) The 128-93 route is about five miles further, but even assuming 50¢ for gas (most motorists don’t figure in the full marginal cost of a mile traveled, many probably discount the extra gas anyway) it is still a saving of \$2 for three minutes of time, a rate of \$40 per hour. That’s generally worth it.

Which is much of the reason why, in 2015, there were 51,000 northbound vehicles daily on the Tobin, but just 34,000 going southbound. (Some of this may be explained by things like the location of on- and off-ramps and traffic patterns, but most of it is likely due to the toll.)

Equalizing the toll will change this calculus dramatically. Many motorists who had balked at the \$2.50 toll may be more willing to part with \$1.25 to save a couple of minutes. And while some will avoid the bridge northbound, it will be far fewer than if the toll were flipped and it was charged full rate northbound, and free coming south. Guessing wildly, I’d guess that 5,000 motorists will use the bridge coming south, and 5,000 will abandon it going north. This means a lot of new toll revenue for the state.

Currently, the state collects \$2.50 from each of the vehicles using the bridge southbound (we’ll assume that the higher rate for larger vehicles offsets the discounted toll charged to Charlestown and Chelsea residents). With 34,215 vehicles counted per weekday in 2015, this amounts to \$85,537.50 in toll revenue. My wild-guess assumption is that there will be 5,000 more southbound travelers (39,215) and 5,000 fewer northbound travelers (46,108), each paying \$1.25, for a total of \$106,653.75, or an additional \$20,000 in toll revenue daily. Even discounting lower traffic on weekends and holidays, this will probably add in the neighborhood of five to six million additional dollars of toll revenue for the state.

The tolls will be fairer and make more sense and raises more money for the state, which can always use more money for infrastructure. This is a win-win …

… unless it has an unforeseen impact traffic. The bridge itself is nowhere near congested, especially coming southbound, where peak-hour traffic counts average just 3000 per hour (1000 per lane per hour), well below the 1500 where congestion begins in earnest (in the chart above, you can see how the northbound traffic levels off at about 4000 per hour, even dipping slightly during the 4 to 5 p.m. peak, which may be due to heavy traffic on roadways accessing the bridge reducing throughput). The issue with more inbound traffic is at the end of the bridge.

Most of the traffic (about 85%) stays on the loop ramp to the Leverett Connector and O’Neill Tunnel. An additional stream of traffic is added from Rutherford Avenue, and there is considerable merging and sorting of this traffic. With only two lanes, this is much nearer capacity; adding more vehicles may create merge traffic which will cause significant backups. The traffic on the Leverett Connector and the tunnel should be a zero-sum game, shifting users from I-93 to Route 1, much like the Turnpike toll removal didn’t necessarily increase traffic, but changed where it got on and off of the highway. Even minor changes can have consequences. This one may work fine. Or it may not.

Still, I’m for this change, as it is sensible policy (even if it might have some unintended consequences). In fact, the Commonwealth should explore avenues to toll all the highways leading in to Boston at a rate equal to the Turnpike. Tolls on the Turnpike are not a detriment to the local economy, which seems fine to be churning alone just fine. And other than federal policy (which may be changing), there is no logical reason why Turnpike commuters should have to pay \$5 a day to get from 128 to the city while I-93 commuters get in for free. And while the dollars from the Tobin change are relatively small, charging a sort-of congestion charge for other highways leading in to Boston could bring in big dollars. I-93 could be tolled at \$2.50 in both directions from 128 to the city, with a lower toll for Route 2 (\$1.25), perhaps waived for commuters parking at Alewife. The harbor tunnel tolls, currently \$3.50 one way, could be reduced to \$1.25 each way to match the other tolls.

At this rate, and assuming that 10% of travelers would carpool, take transit or use side roads to avoid the tolls (although with electronic tolling, it’s harder to simply avoid a toll booth), this would increase the equity of the transportation system, while at the same time raising more than \$600 million annually for road maintenance. Considering the age and state of many of the roadways, bridges and tunnels in the Commonwealth, this money could be spent making sure that the roadways are maintained statewide. Unlike a vehicle mile tax, this is not a new concept; it’s one which has been in place on roadways throughout the Commonwealth for nearly a century (far longer if you account for the 19th century incarnations). And unlike a statewide gas tax, this targets users of the state’s most crowded and overtaxed infrastructure, and may be a factor leading drivers to consider other modes, which often run parallel. The Turnpike users already pay tolls. It’s high time others did a well.

What if the Allston Viaduct was rebuilt … without a huge highway viaduct?

I’ve gone to my fair share of meetings and written quite a bit about the Allston viaduct project.

The long and short of it: \$250 million for a replacement viaduct basically replicating the old one, and maybe some transit, walking and biking improvements if they can “find” the money. Everyone agrees the project has to happen: the viaduct is falling down. There are preliminary plans, and arguments over how big and wide of a viaduct to build.

But what if you didn’t build a big, wide viaduct at all? If you think outside the box (as this page has before), there’s the potential to save money. Considering how much cheaper it is to build other roads at grade, potentially lot of money. \$50 million. Maybe more. The resulting highway would be safer, have better grades and sight lines, and integrate better in to potential development in Allston. It just requires a slightly change of the state of mind.

I won’t blame anyone for not realizing this earlier. I’ve been writing about this for years and it took a prompt to see if everything would fit at grade to figure it out. (The answer is you’d be about 30 feet short of lateral space to put everything at grade, and you still need to cross the Turnpike and Grand Junction.) But once you change you frame of reference, elevating the Grand Junction over the Turnpike, instead of the other way round, makes a whole lot of sense.

\$250 million is a lot to spend for a mile of roadway; much of that cost is in building a high-and-wide viaduct, supports and steel and drainage, and said viaduct then costs more to maintain. This project has a lot of moving parts (bike/ped paths, Soldiers Field Road, Mass Pike, four railroad tracks going to two separate destinations) in a narrow corridor, including one (the Grand Junction branch) which has to cross another (the highway). But what if you could do it all without a hulking, expensive highway viaduct? An at-grade highway would save a lot of money. It would cost less to maintain. And it would remove the Great Wall of Allston between the river and the neighborhood.

With the state budget deficit and without increased gas taxes for infrastructure spending, we need to fully analyze projects so they are as fiscally responsible as possible. In this case, the project is necessary—the viaduct is the same age as the crumbling nearby Commonwealth Avenue bridge—but replacing a viaduct with another viaduct is far more costly than moving as much of the project as possible to grade. There is a way to do this—to build much less elevated structure—which would likely save tens of millions of dollars. We need to seriously consider it, although so far any project which does not include a large, wide road viaduct has been dismissed out of hand. That must change.

I think it comes down to priorities. With so many moving parts, there needs to be some back and forth. Certain things are immutable: you can’t get rid of the Turnpike, or the railroad. Others—what goes where, construction impacts, and the like—can be changed. So here is a rundown of priorities, roughly ranked:

• Retain Turnpike capacity at completion.
• Retain Worcester Commuter Rail at completion.
• Retain two-track right-of-way for Grand Junction at completion.
• Retain Paul Dudley White path along river.
• Provide connectivity for a future West Station
• Minimize cost.
• Maximize economic development opportunities by minimizing above-grade land use for transportation infrastructure in the Beacon Park Yards area.
• Minimize disruption to rail and road traffic during construction.
• Improve quality of life for surrounding neighborhoods.
• Add width to highway to improve emergency lanes and sight lines.
• Build a “People’s Pike” connecting the river to Allston and Boston University
• Improve parkland along the Charles River.

The first four items are the immutable ones. A project which fails to address them is dead on arrival; Turnpike is not going to become an Arborway-like boulevard with crosswalks and bike lanes (at least not in the next 50 years). But beyond that, it gets more interesting. The most complicated piece of the puzzle is getting the Grand Junction rail line from the south side of the Turnpike to the north side. Since 1962, it has gone underneath the roadway, and perhaps because “we’ve always done it that way,” all the plans for the future have the same scenario. Yet this requires a large, wide viaduct, and those don’t come cheap. And even setting cost aside, it turns out that it might not even be the best way to build the project anyway.

If you take a few steps back, the highway viaduct just doesn’t make sense. The Grand Junction is two railroad tracks wide, or 30 feet. The Turnpike is, at a minimum, 110 feet wide. Why not put the turnpike at ground level, and build a viaduct that is one quarter the width ? Does it make sense to put the wider, higher, larger structure above the lower, narrower one? No. Elevating the Grand Junction would be far less expensive.

What’s more, on the eastern end of the project area, the Turnpike passes underneath Commonwealth Avenue, while the Grand Junction passes over Soldiers Field Road. 1000 feet out from the narrowest part of the corridor, where one has to pass over the other, the Grand Junction line is 16 feet higher than the Turnpike. Yet the railroad slopes down and the Turnpike ramps up, as they zigzag in vertical space to attain the necessary grade separation. From a terrain standpoint, putting the Turnpike at ground level just makes sense.

The charts below show the gradients for the current and proposed scenarios. The map below corresponds which each of the letters shown on the charts (data from MassGIS LiDAR data). Note how the Turnpike starts and ends at a lower elevation than the railroad. It makes no sense to have it resemble a rollercoaster.

What we have right now is a half-mile-long, eight-lane-wide viaduct to cross a double-track railroad right of way. It’s as if a highway were tunneled under a small stream instead of going over it on a small bridge. For whatever reason, a highway viaduct may have made sense in 1962. It doesn’t today.

MassDOT “considered” elevating the railroad, but they dismissed it as infeasible. Why? Because they assumed that all four tracks of the railroad would have to be elevated. I don’t think it’s nefarious; I think everyone’s mindset is that the highway has to go over the railroad, because that’s how it’s always been. But the Worcester tracks stay on the same side of the highway as the whole way: they can stay at ground level; there’s no need for grade separation. The Grand Junction is much easier to elevate, and requires a much narrower structure, too. Here are three slides (from here) dismissing the overhead rail line as impossible, and my annotation on each as to why it is not the case. (Click here for full size.)

One issue is that MassDOT “requires” 135 feet of highway width for full-width shoulders. While this is “Interstate standard,” waivers can be granted for constrained areas, and much of the Turnpike (including the existing viaduct) doesn’t have any such lanes. If the highway is kept at grade, it will have much gentler grades and better sight lines. This added safety will mitigate the narrow width—and such a compromise would allow for better use of the corridor as a whole.

So you should kee the Grand Junction line high, and the highway low. Westbound drivers would cross under Commonwealth Avenue and then stay level. From their right, the Grand Junction line would ascend slightly—about 5 feet at a 1˚ grade—and pass on to pedestals over the center of the highway. It would continue down the center until it curved off to the left towards West Station and descended to grade. This is not a novel concept: the JFK AirTrain in New York operates in a similar manner in median of the Van Wyck Expressway. And since initial foundation work could be completed under the existing overpass early in the project, the bottoms of the pedestals and median could be pre-built with minimal impacts to traffic; less of an impact than shown here. One note: the AirTrain uses lighter vehicles than the Grand Junction, so it may require more closely-spaced supports and a somewhat thicker deck akin to what is used for other “modern” T bridges like the Eastern Route crossing of the Mystic River.  (The photo on the right is of construction of the Van Wyck AirTrain, from this site.)

Which of the following is more inviting?

Since the AirTrain is elevated above cross streets as well, it’s quite a bit higher than a viaduct would be in Allston, what a cross-section would look like from the Paul Dudley White Bike Path is similar to what it looks like when it crosses a cross street. That’s a bit less obtrusive than this. Or see below:

The photos above are actually taken from approximately the same distance away. Note how much more of the sky you can see above the Van Wyck. Wouldn’t you rather have something like the image on the right?

Here is a cross section of my plans and the viaduct plan. Colors denote uses, and are scaled to the height of the users/vehicles. Scale in feet:

By elevating the Grand Junction, there is enough room for the rest of the uses:

• 14 feet for the Paul Dudley White path (an increase from 8 to 10 feet now, narrower in places)
• 24 feet for each side of Soldier’s Field Road, with a two foot median and two feet separating the bike path. This is the current width, and the road would need little modification overall.
• A four-foot barrier between Soldier’s Field Road and the Turnpike.
• 54 feet of travel space for each side of the Turnpike, enough for four twelve-foot lanes, a two foot left shoulder and a four foot right shoulder, with a six foot median where the supports for the rail line sit. Including barriers, this is 11 feet more than the current 107-foot-wide viaduct, although it is not as wide as the proposed MassDOT viaduct with full shoulders. However, by mitigating the steep grades and sight line issues, the road could be designed in this section with these narrower shoulders. With 11 foot lanes, an 8 foot shoulder could be accommodated.
• Six feet for the concrete pedestal supports for the box-girder structure for the Grand Junction rail line, which is 30 feet wide.
• 30 feet for the Worcester Line right of way, which would be relocated only slightly once the viaduct abutments are removed.

From above, it would look something like this (with just a sketch of ramps and street grid in Allston, which would built above grade):

And a focus in on the narrow viaduct area:

It would also have benefits in the Allston area. In current plans, the Turnpike viaduct has to slope gradually down through the Beacon Park Yard area. If it were at grade, it could be easily decked over, and ramps could go up to a street grid on that deck. The Grand Junction would have to descend towards West Station, but it has a much smaller footprint and would start its descent from a lower elevation, thus it would much more easily integrate in to the surrounding area.

Construction would also be much simpler, because instead of a multi-stage process where the viaduct was unbuilt and rebuilt at the same time, it would simply be unbuilt in stages, with the new roadway built on the ground below. The current staging plans call for a new, wider viaduct to be built in stages, two lanes at a time, while the old bridge is being torn down, including many temporary supports and other engineering issues. By putting roadways at the surface, you could accomplish the entire task without building any new bridging, in fewer stages (dismantling four lanes at a time instead of two), and only shoring up a few supports temporarily. It’s even possible that pedestals for the Grand Junction—which would likely be built under the current viaduct before other construction—could be used during construction to shore up the viaduct as it is dismantled.

As for the final product, rather than a 110-foot-wide, 30-foot-high viaduct, you’d have a 30-foot-wide, 24-foot-high one. The rail structure would have just 22% of the mass of the road viaduct. Road noise would be lower to the ground (with the potential for an overbuild park to cap noise all together), and the viaduct would be further from the river and from buildings at BU. And ongoing maintenance costs would be far lower. The main loss is the inability to tuck some of Soldier’s Field Road under the viaduct and create slightly more parkland in the vicinity of the viaduct. But for a cheaper project, you get a much smaller viaduct which casts fewer shadows over this area, so the bike path is a more pleasant experience.

The only major issue would be a relatively long-term closure of the Grand Junction branch, so MBTA operations and a small amount of Everett-bound freight would have to move via Ayer and Worcester. This happened recently when the Grand Junction bridge was undergoing emergency rehabilitation for several months; the biggest issue was the 10 mph speed limit on Pan Am trackage between Ayer and Worcester. (The railroad out to Worcester is Class 3 and permits 60 mph speeds, the rebuilt railroad inbound from Ayer will mostly be Class 4 with speeds of 80 mph.) With a small portion of the money saved from not building a road viaduct, that track could be upgraded to Class 2 (30 mph) trackage to save considerable time with equipment swaps and improve a freight rail trunk line as well. It would also be an opportunity to fully rebuild the Grand Junction bridge, and other portions of the corridor to Kendall Square and beyond. (One other minor issue is serving Houghton Chemical, which could be accomplished, by relocating Houghton Chemical to the other side of the highway as depicted above. In the “armpit” of the Turnpike and railroad, it would be a perfectly good site for such a use, sustain a family business in the area, and free up developable land near the river.)

Once you take a step back from the current situation and think about this, it’s obvious. It makes no sense to build a wider, higher viaduct for a roadway when you can build a narrower and lower one for the railroad. All it requires is some grading underneath the viaduct, construction that is certainly no more complex that what is being proposed. A surface roadway has a much longer lifespan and lower maintenance costs than an elevated one, and it provides a much less obtrusive—and more future-proof, as it fits in better with potential development in Allston—structure as well. It’s a better project. Best of all, given the cost differentials for projects like the Casey Overpass elimination (and McGrath and Bowker), it could probably be built for \$50 to \$100 million less than the viaduct, with future savings from lower maintenance costs.

That money would go a long way towards full completion of this project, mitigation steps, and ensuring the safety of other roads and bridges across the Commonwealth.

Harry Mattison, who’s leading the charge regarding the Mass Pike realignment that has been discussed for some time, asked me to reply to his email chain with some comments. I figured I’d post them here. This is what I think about the project and comments I will be submitting. Most of it is aligned with what the rest of the committee is pushing, with a bit at the end echoing some earlier ideas I’ve had. In any case, the more they hear from the public, the better, so please send comments to:

dot.feedback.highway@state.ma.us

by the close of business on Monday, September 29. You can find another example letter here.

*****

I am writing regarding the continuing planning process for the Allston Interchange project. While the project plans have certainly progressed from the originally-proposed “suburban-style interchange” (which seemed specious at the time and hopefully wasn’t a red herring to make urbanists feel like MassDOT was committed making changes), there is much work to be done. My comments will focus on several areas—overall design, development potential, transit use, bicycling and pedestrian connections and parkland—to assure that the highway utility is maintained but that this project is a positive development for the surrounding community. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake this parcel of land, and to connect Cambridge, Allston, Boston University and surrounding communities. Failing to do so will be a failure of the planning process, and a dereliction of duty for MassDOT in its GreenDOT, Health Transportation Compact and overall mode shift goals.

The overall design of the project as an urban-style interchange is certainly better than high, looping suburban ramps, but it has room for improvement. The footprint of the project, both in its width and height, must be minimized. For the width, a highway with “interstate standards” has been proposed for the viaduct section, with 12 foot breakdown lanes and a much wider viaduct looming over the Charles, and engineers argue that this is a requirement. This is risible. Much of the Central Artery project lacks such lanes, as does the current structure. It will certainly be less costly to build a narrower structure with less material (savings that could be used for other area improvements), and traffic and congestion in the area is caused by many factors, none of which is the width of this structure. The current structure should be the maximum width of the new project, not the minimum. West of the viaduct, the current proposal should be modified to assure that the maximum amount of the highway is built at or below grade to allow overhead use in the future. All surface streets should be built as city streets, with single turn lanes, low design speeds and provisions for bicycles, pedestrians and transit use.

Finally, the project team must have direct input from the planning, architecture and landscape architecture fields, with a focus on the emerging “placemaking” field. Even with changes, it seems that this is being viewed first and foremost as a highway project. It must be viewed as an economic development project, which happens to have a highway running through it.

It is very important that whatever the design of the final highway, it is minimally disruptive to overall development in the area. This area lies within a mile of Boston University, Harvard and MIT. It will have good highway connections, and (hopefully) excellent transit connections to much of the population and economy of Boston. The value of the land for housing, education and commercial uses will be almost unparalleled in the area, and there are certainly examples of high-value properties built overhead highways. (One must look no further than the Prudential Center for a good example.) The provisions for overhead decking should be built in to the project, if not the decking itself, which is far less expensive to build as part of a brownfield construction project than an existing highway. This decking should, if possible, extend over the rail corridor as well (Back Bay Station would be an example here, as would many New York City Transit properties). With more and more residents wanting to live in transit-accessible areas, we should assure that potential housing properties are kept as easily built as possible.

As this area grows, it could become the next Kendall Square: a nexus of education and technology. Currently, the rail yards and highway produce minimal tax revenue for the City of Boston, which has to deal with the air and noise pollution they create. Allowing maximum development potential here should be a priority for the Commonwealth, to allow the city future tax revenues from development here. Cambridge residents enjoy low property tax rates due to the many businesses in the Kendall Square area; extending this to Allston would benefit all of the residents of the city. Many international companies have relocated to Boston and Cambridge, and we should give them every opportunity and location to do so. The Boston Society of Architects has had some great examples of this type of development potential here.

Transit must be a priority for this project, not an afterthought. The oft-mentioned West Station should not merely be a design element of this project, it should be built as part of the project, if not before the mainline of the roadway. Further development of this area will not take place because of its proximity to a highway; transit access will drive growth in the 21st century. West Station must be built with a minimum of four rail tracks to serve both the burgeoning Worcester Line as well as potential service on the Grand Junction. The state is spending millions of dollars improving Worcester service and expanding the number of trains, and a West Station service current uses (steps from Boston University) and future growth is a must. The Grand Junction Line must be built with two full tracks for potential future service; it’s ability to link Allston, Cambridge, North Station and beyond (and by doing so, provide much better connections for travelers from west of Boston wishing to get to Cambridge, the cause of much of the surface traffic in the area) should not be understated.

In addition, the plans must have provisions for future north-south transit in the area. Currently, travel from Boston University to Harvard Square requires 40 minutes and a minimum of one transfer, often with travel through the congested center of the subway network. New traffic patterns should allow for a direct connection between BU and Allston, continuing on the south end to Kenmore Square or the Longwood Medical Area, and the north side to Harvard Square. While there are certainly valid arguments that heavy car traffic should be precluded from this area, transit service should be prioritized. A transitway from the Packards Corner area via West Station to Harvard Street would fulfill objectives of the Urban Ring, as well as allow much better connectivity through the neighborhood. This should be planned with signal priority over other vehicular traffic, the potential for future grade separation, and the potential for conversion to light rail so as to meet up with the Green Line on Commonwealth Avenue. Imagine, a Green Line branch from Cleveland Circle to Harvard Square via Commonwealth Avenue and Allston. This would certainly be possible in the future if we design the appropriate rights of way today.

In addition to transit, bicycle and pedestrian travel must be well-integrated in to the project. The recent concepts put forth have certainly improved original plans, but, again, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure should be a priority, not an afterthought. Pains should be taken to assure that routes are safe, adequately wide (a minimum of 25 feet wherever possible) and direct, with minimal street crossings. A well-built bicycle and pedestrian network will make trips which are currently convoluted, roundabout and/or dangerous much more desirable, and certainly allow for better connectivity and attaining mode shift goals by shifting travelers away from cars. Other existing and future human-scale corridors should be designed for maximum efficiency in moving people without cars. Within a 30 minute walk of this area are many of the leading health, education, science and commercial institutions in the world. They should be accessible without sitting in traffic.

This project parallels the Charles River, and surround park land must be a priority. From the Charles Dam to the Eliot Bridge and beyond, much of the DCR parkland is taken up by high speed roadways. We have turned our back on the river in the name of moving vehicles, and this is something we should begin to take steps towards mitigating. This project will give us a good first stab at that. As mentioned above, no parkland should be sacrificed for a wider viaduct: we have seen too much green space appropriated as pavement in the past generations. Soldiers Field Road should be migrated as far away from the river as possible, creating a promenade or “Allston Esplanade” similar to what we have further to the east, which should connect with development alongside and above the highway. The current bike path, which is, at places such as the River Street Bridge, less than five feet wide (well below any reasonable safety standard) in the name of keeping car traffic moving must be changed: we should no longer throw the safety of cyclists and pedestrians to the wind in order to make traffic flow better. It is laudable that MassDOT is working with the DCR: they should be included in this process going forward.

Furthermore, there is a dramatic opportunity to work with Harvard to move Soldiers Field Road away from the river across a much longer distance, and in turn create one of the premiere riverfront parks in the country. This would entail looping Soldiers Field Road west of Harvard’s Business School campus and the Harvard Stadium, likely in a below-grade facility to mitigate the impact on the neighborhood there. However, without sacrificing any capacity and allowing shorter distances for motorists, it would allow the DCR to decommission the roadway between the Eliot Bridge and the Allston project site, allowing a wide, linear park to form along the river, benefiting not only local residents, but all residents of the Commonwealth. (A rough outline of this plan can be found here.)

The Allston Turnpike project is an opportunity to shape the entire region for the next 100 years. We must assure that all plans allow for the maximum future development. Again, this is not merely a highway project: it is a long term development project which we must allow to have positive returns for the Commonwealth’s economy and quality of life.

Tolls, traffic and unintended consequences

Back in 1996, Governor Bill Weld wanted to be Senator. John Kerry was running for his third term. Amidst the clash of blue-blooded New Englanders, Weld decided it would be a great political coup to remove tolls on two sections of the Massachusetts Turnpike. So he zeroed out the tolls in Western Mass (which mainly required new tickets—yes, that was pre-EZ-Pass—as the highway still required toll barriers; the tolls were reinstated last year to little fanfare) and nixed the toll in Weston Newton. While the Western Mass tolls were a quiet affair, the West Newton tolls were less so.

Overnight, signs went up: Toll Free. One day when I was biking home from middle school (yes, middle school, and yes, I was a commie bicyclist even then!) I noticed a peculiar sight: a backhoe was tearing in to the old toll booths, and within a few days they were gone, paved over would never be seen again. Of course, this was a transparent political ploy, and it soon surfaced that Weld hadn’t publicly bid the demolition contract but instead given it to a friend. He lost the election by seven points.
And overnight, he created a nearly-twenty-year-long traffic jam. (Yes, this was predicted by some at the time, although the Globe article is archived so you need a login, and yes, all of this really happened.)

Much of the traffic coming east on the Turnpike originates on Route 128. When the Southwest and Northwest expressways were canceled, the Pike became the only western trunk route in to the city. Up until that point, the toll to access the Turnpike at 128 was 50¢, and in West Newton it was 25¢. Traffic from the south on 128 has little incentive to stay on 128 to the Turnpike, as the diagonal Route 16 is two miles shorter and, even with traffic lights, negligibly slower, especially given the roundabout design of the 90/128 interchange, where Boston-bound motorists drive half a mile due west before swinging back east through the toll gates. Until 1996, there was a 25¢ difference between staying on the highway and taking the surface roads. In 1996, the savings went to 50¢, and when tolls were raised in 2002, to \$1.00 (it stands at \$1.25 today). This was a four-fold increase in the direct cost savings over those six years, and there was suddenly a much higher incentive to take the Route 16 shortcut and save a dollar.

And guess what happened on Route 16? Traffic tripled, and gridlock ensued. Exit 16—coincidentally, where Route 16 intersects the Turnpike—was never anticipated to be more than a local access exit. It has a short acceleration zone and a very short merge with poor sightlines around a bridge abutment. And it began to handle far more traffic than it had before. (On the other hand, the outbound ramp no longer required vehicles to slow through the toll plaza, and they frequently merged in to Washington Street at highway speed at a blind corner with significant pedestrian traffic.) With more cars coming off of Route 16 rather than the main line, it created a merge which caused traffic back-ups a mile back Route 16, and—given the merge—also backed up traffic on the mainline of the Turnpike. Additionally, drivers who may have, in the past, stayed on Route 16 between West Newton and Newton Corner instead used the free segment of highway, adding to the traffic along the Turnpike and causing more backups at the short exit ramp there. One shortsighted, unstudied policy change changed the economic decisions of drivers on several segments of road, changed the equilibrium, and caused several different traffic jams.

And the state lost money, to boot.

So the new electronic toll can’t come soon enough. It’s too hard to tell if it will rebalance the traffic, or if growing traffic volumes in the intervening 18 years have created this traffic in any event. But it will finally correct a problem nearly two decades in the making by a governor trying to score political points; a problem that never should have occurred in the first place.

The Pike Straightening in context

Last year, the state announced that it was going to straighten the Mass Pike in Allston. Everyone agrees this is a good idea: it’s an aging structure, it includes far more grade separation than necessary, wider roadways than will be required for all-electric tolling, and a speed-limiting curve. The initial design last year left a lot to be desired: it doesn’t change much of the area, and included big, sweeping, suburban-style ramps to move vehicles at high speeds from the Turnpike to Cambridge Street, and then funnels those vehicles in to the same godforsaken intersection with River Street and Western Avenue that already exists. Apparently it will be updated, but as stated now, it is a wasted opportunity.

This area represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to engage major institutions and infrastructure to connect Boston in ways it has never been connected before. This page previously discussed the various related projects in the area. Harvard realized that a decade ago when they bought all the land underlying the area (MassDOT retains full easements). But there are several facets where a long-range outlook for the area would allow massive redevelopment, a new, transit-oriented housing and employment hub, and dramatic improvements to traffic flow to boot. While little of this may come to pass early on, it is important that construction that does take place does not preclude such improvements in the future.

 Image from this post. Read the whole thing.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. David Maerz has a great graphic about how Storrow Drive could merge in and out of the Turnpike, and off of the river, and it’s a huge step in the direction I’m thinking. I assume we came up with these on our own; it’s the right thinking. Hopefully we can convince the state to go in this direction as well.

The long and short of it is that while the project scope may be limited now, nothing should be constructed to preclude future development. The worst thing that could happen would be a highway engineer’s dream ramps, speeding traffic along swooping elevated highways. That may work fine 25 miles outside the city, but it would represent a lost opportunity in Allston.

Decongestion:

While traffic on the main trunk of the Turnpike (100,000 vehicles per day) flows reasonably well, the same can not be said for the ramps leading on and off (30,000 per day). (Traffic counts here) All traffic is funneled through two toll booths (or in the parlance of the Turnpike, “Plazas”) and subsequent sets of ramps. Most of it then goes through a bottleneck. Except for traffic to and from Allston, all traffic to/from Soldiers Field Road, Memorial Drive, Western and River Streets—and by extension Harvard, Central and Kendall Squares and beyond—runs through the intersection at Cambridge Street and the river. Thanks to a series of traffic lights and one-way streets, this ramp backs up to and sometimes through the toll plazas, and because of minimal throughput and merging, often creates delays of 15 minutes or longer. For traffic coming from Cambridge and Storrow Drive, there are similar delays as traffic has to run across the intersection outbound. This ties up in both directions for most busy times of the day.

In addition, these ramps create a horrid environment for cyclists and pedestrians. A relic of 1960s-era planning, Cambridge Street was built like a highway, and pedestrians and cyclists have to cross high speed ramps and then navigate an intersection with long light cycles and few, if any lane markings. Straightening the turnpike without addressing these shortcomings would be a major failure.

 Example of a more efficient vehicle route.

Looking further out, however, there is ample opportunity to create additional entrances and exits from the Turnpike, and pull the congestion out of this area. For instance, a set of ramps further west in Brighton would allow traffic from Harvard Square and Fresh Pond Parkway to use the Eliot Bridge and avoid the Turnpike all together. This would remove traffic from this intersection, and reduce travel distances overall. It would also allow better highway access to the New Balance development in Allston, and several neighborhoods which border the Turnpike but do not have nearby highway access. Changes like this are not necessarily directly wihtin the project scope, but they are so intertwined that they should be analyzed along with the straightening itself.

A extension of the street grid (see next section) through the area would also help with congestion, and allow better access to the BU property bordering the rail yard.

 Bicycle facilities in yellow: Solid: existing Dashed: under construction Dotted: planned/proposed Potential highways in orange Potential green space in Green Potential street grid in white

Street Connectivity

Allston is currently a black hole for getting from one side of the world to the other. From Boston University to Harvard Square on a bicycle, your options are to use the BU Bridge or Harvard Avenue and the Cambridge Street overpass or a derelict pedestrian bridge. Options by foot or by vehicle are not much better. While concepts include a street grid generally along and north of Cambridge Street, there is the opportunity to connect the streets south to Boston University and Commonwealth Avenue. These would increase bicycle and pedestrian mobility as well as easing the current gridlock at the nearest crossings of the turnpike east and west of the Allston Yard, at the BU Bridge and Harvard Ave/Cambridge Streets. Entrances and exits from the Turnpike would allow for far better connections across this current hole in the system. It would also provide links between much of Boston’s bicycle network, which is one of the premises of the People’s Pike.

Development

One huge issue in Boston is a lack of affordable housing. Housing in Allston, Brighton, Cambridge and the surrounding areas is accessible to jobs by transit and to the nearby universities. The Allston plot happens to be right in the center of three schools: within a mile of BU, Harvard and MIT. While Harvard owns the land, it could provide housing for all three schools, as well as for the population in general. High-priced riverfront housing (especially if the roadways were pulled away from the river) could help to subsidize construction with less lofty views, but still a great location nearby thousands of jobs and educational facilities. Would this be a complete panacea to the housing issues in Boston? Probably not. But the land would be available to add thousands of housing units, many of them owned by colleges for student housing, which would free up some demand in nearby neighborhoods and stabilize prices. It would also provide an area which area which could be very well connected to transit for commercial development as well. By depressing as much infrastructure as possible and decking over it, a large, open area could be available for development.

Parkland

 Potential route for Soldiers Field Road away from the river and new parkland

The change would be dramatic. The current underpasses at Western, River and Harvard could be repurposed for bicyclists (a goal of the Charles River Conservancy and many bicycling and pedestrian activists) saving millions of dollars and achieving a goal for the DCR plans along the river. It would also create one of the best riverfront parks in the country. It would increase the value of real estate near the river. In the 1930s to 1960s, we paved along most of our riverfront. This would be a great opportunity to take it back.

Transit

 Existing (solid) and potential (dashed) transit. New stations shown.

Finally, this area is currently reasonably well-connected to the transit system, but it could be dramatically better connected. The state’s 10 year transit plan shows DMUs operating from a “West Station” in the Allston yard area to both North and South stations. This is a fine start. But the opportunities here are endless. Currently, there is a drastic demand for travel between Cambridge and the Fenway/Allston/Brookline/Longwood areas. The 1 and 66 are the top two bus routes the MBTA operates, and the M2 runs from Harvard to Longwood ever 5 to 10 minutes at rush hour, and frequently all day. If there were a better connection, it would be great for jobs access and congestion reduction. And buses currently skirt the Allston area, but better connections would certainly improve the situation.

So a first step would be the DMUs between Allston and the downtown terminals. Further along, the line through Kendall could be improved to allow more frequent service and transit-level service could be provided between 128 and North and South stations, serving the high-density Newton-Brighton corridor and adding more transit choices for commuters along the Turnpike, easing congestion further (and pulling off enough demand to, say, eliminate Storrow Drive west of the Bowker overpass).

In the long run, however, the Allston area provides a dramatic link between Harvard Square and Kenmore and points south. When the Red Line was relocated in the 1980s, the former yard leads to the Cabot Yards (now the Kennedy School) were maintained—the tunnels exist to this day, curving from the Red Line tracks parallel to the bus tunnel. The right-of-way is maintained through the campus (a conspicuous gap between buildings) to the river. While tunneling would be expensive, this is a transit corridor that could connect to Allston (via North Harvard Street) and then across Allston. An initial corridor could connect to the B Line on Commonwealth Avenue via the BU campus, with a connection at the “West Station.” Further along the line, it could be extended (via tunnel—expensively) through the Longwood Medical Area and Melnea Cass Boulevard to the Andrew or Columbia stations, creating the opportunity for a true Urban Ring. Since it connects with the Red Line on both ends, it could use the Red Line rolling stock (which has higher capacity than other MBTA equipment).

Obviously this is a decades-long plan, but the transitway could be at least roughed in in the Allston area (and maybe connected to the Green Line which could have a short A-Allston branch extending in to the Harvard campus) with provisions added for extensions in both directions. Again, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with basically a blank slate, and it’s much cheaper to build a box now than dig a tunnel under already-built infrastructure.

A lot of these steps are long in the future. However, there is no reason we should construct something now which will preclude this potential in the future.