Renée Loth

The Charles River’s bridge to the future

By Renée Loth
March 5, 2011

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THE BRIDGE that arches the Charles River at North Harvard and JFK Streets is historic in its own right. But it also represents a historic opportunity to perfect the way people move around the city into the next century. The scenic Anderson Memorial Bridge, built in 1915, is one of the most popular crossings over the river — until it’s time to cross Memorial Drive or Soldiers Field Road. Then the area becomes a battlefield, with cars, cyclists, pedestrians, runners, and roving bands of Harvard students all fighting for territory. Sometimes, there are casualties.

Happily, the Anderson Bridge is one of the first along the Charles to get a rethink under Governor Patrick’s $3 billion Accelerated Bridge Repair program. Beyond reinforcing the stone and concrete structure itself, plans are underway to widen the sidewalks, add a bike lane, re-time traffic signals, and eliminate left-hand turns in an effort to ease the congestion.

But that isn’t good enough. This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to design an urban bridge network that respects all forms of transport, not just the four-wheel, polluting type. A coalition of environmental and civic groups, including the Cambridge City Council, wants to see a pedestrian underpass constructed on at least one side of the river, to create a seamless path along the Charles, and eliminate the need to cross the parkways.

“This is about a vision for the future,’’ said Renata von Tscharner of the Charles River Conservancy. A similar passageway was constructed under the 1950s-era Eliot Bridge further upriver; it is rather dank and unwelcoming, but still preferable to entering the hazardous web of roads at grade level.

The underpass would seem a perfect fit with the “healthy transportation compact’’ that is a central part of Patrick’s massive transportation reform law. The compact pledges to encourage decisions that “balance the needs of all transportation users, expand mobility, improve public health, support a cleaner environment and create stronger communities.’’ It’s a legacy moment for Patrick: a chance to make good on his promises to leave the state a better place for the next generation, or two.

So far, however, the state Department of Transportation has been cool to the idea. Its most recent environmental notification form does not include an underpass, even though state highway commissioner Luisa Paiewonsky wrote in the submission that the bridge repair should be seen as a chance to “improve universal accessibility and pedestrian and bicycle connections around the bridge.’’

In general, DOT has been making great strides in planning for transportation modes beyond the car. But a report by engineering consultants it hired to evaluate the Anderson underpass found it would add to the cost and timeline for the bridge repair, require more permits, and possibly degrade the historic structure.

With steep, fragile banks, it isn’t an easy site. But even a much less-invasive boardwalk built out over the river was dismissed, because it could “face significant opposition from the rowing community.’’ Who knew that scullers were such a potent political force?

State Representative Marty Walz, who has several of the Charles River bridges in her district, thinks most of these obstacles can be overcome in a truly visionary process. “DOT is not wrong to want to keep its foot on the accelerator,’’ she said, “but the need for speed should not sacrifice a quality project. We are building for the next 75 years.’’

The state’s new secretary of environmental affairs, Richard Sullivan, can still call for a separate environmental impact report of the underpass by March 11, keeping the proposal alive. He wouldn’t comment because the matter is under review. But as the former state commissioner of conservation and recreation, he may be concerned about financial pressures on the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which would be responsible for maintenance of the underpasses.

Again, a larger vision is in order. Since a memorial plaque on the Anderson speaks grandly of the bridge “connecting the College Yard and playing fields of Harvard’’ perhaps the university could be asked to chip in for maintenance. After all, what happens at the Anderson doesn’t stay at the Anderson, but sets a precedent for the Western Avenue and River Street bridges yet to be repaired downstream — and for the state’s ability to embrace the future.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.