Stopping traffic before it starts near expanded Harvard

By Andreae Downs
Globe Correspondent / October 5, 2008
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Transportation and gridlock at the Allston offramps and throughout the neighborhood are already an issue in North Allston/Brighton.

But with Harvard planning massive investment and development, with thousands of additional employees and students to descend on the roughly 600 acres between the Mass. Turnpike and the river, residents worry that both air quality and quality of life may suffer.

So a Boston Redevelopment Authority meeting last month at the Honan-Allston library branch drew more than 50 concerned residents and elected officials or their staffs to hear from top transportation officials and experts.

But many left griping that their questions and remarks could not be aired - the meeting was taken up primarily with PowerPoint presentations. Speakers included the city-hired Cecil Group, consultants whose job is to collect residents' comments and present a workable plan for the neighborhood; Harvard's Development Group for its Allston campus; and a representative from the Executive Office for Transportation, who gave an overview of plans for an urban ring - bus transit that that would connect the Longwood Medical Area, Boston University, and Harvard's Allston and Cambridge campuses.

Harry Mattison, a member of the Harvard Allston Task Force, said, "There's just not enough time, either tonight or in the schedule" of fall meetings. "We are miles apart on the issues: on bridges over the river, on how we get over the Pike."

In a later interview, Jessica Shumaker, spokeswoman for the BRA, said that while the fall was packed with other community planning meetings, after the winter holidays there would "absolutely" be additional time for resident questions and feedback on streets and transit.

In the limited time allowed, neighbors panned a Cecil Group suggestion to mitigate traffic on Western Avenue and North Harvard Street by expanding capacity on Lincoln and Everett streets. They were also skeptical of a proposal to put a parking garage near the Turnpike offramps. This was put forward as a way to keep cars out of the neighborhood, but also as part of a "multimodal transit hub" that would include, eventually, rail on what are now CSX freight lines, a bike rental/bike rack area, bus connections, and the planned urban ring.

The presentations did not explore redesigning the Turnpike ramps, which several planners conceded would have to happen - in a meeting earlier this year, speakers had noted that the ramps are dropping concrete on the rail lines below. Similarly, the neighborhood's often-requested stop on the commuter rail lines running along the Turnpike were mentioned only as a long-term (15 to 25 years) benefit.

"I am just shocked to hear that this now can't happen in my lifetime," said Len Kelliher, 75 , a lifelong resident.

"I hear from constituents all the time about getting a rail stop in the neighborhood," said Representative Kevin Honan, a Democrat from Brighton. "People have come back saying it's not economically feasible. But with recent development" - he cited the New Balance headquarters and St. Elizabeth's Hospital - "it's time to revisit that."

Putting parts of Storrow Drive underground was also touted, but not by all, as a way to open up the neighborhood to the river parks. Proposals to add pedestrian-activated signals, as suggested by Harvard's representatives, would "push traffic into the neighborhoods," according to Paul Berkeley, a member of the Harvard Allston Task Force .

"We want" a depressed Storrow Drive "in the mix," said Tim McHale of Litchfield Street. Additionally, "Harvard has to come up with a new traffic plan that generates zero new trips."

Harvard's Joe Beggan took a half-hour to show the group what the university's planners envision so far; creating more connections across the river to Harvard Square and south across the Turnpike (to link to the Longwood Medical Area) are essential, Beggan said.

Harvard's plans would make pedestrians and bikes more welcome, and provide better access to transit. Their sketches included bike lanes along Western Avenue and North Harvard Street, bike and pedestrian paths through the campus and to the river, and bus lanes that would also be for bicyclists.

But Galen Mook, a BU student representing Allston Brighton Bikes, questioned whether speeding buses and bikes could safely mix. He also pointed out the weaknesses of painted, rather than substantially separated, bike lanes.

On Commonwealth Avenue, near BU, where new bike lanes have recently been painted, "three bikes were hit by cars last week," he said. "Bikes should be separated from cars with a curb."

The university is also talking about creating a new street, Stadium Way, that would parallel North Harvard Street and could be where the urban ring buses could have a dedicated right-of-way.

Finally, all planners touted so-called "mobility hubs," consisting of a kiosk with rental bikes, wireless Internet, and real-time information on when buses or shuttles would arrive, maps, and information on how to connect with other transportation options. These hubs are low-cost, and increase commuters' non-automobile options, they said.

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