Decision making process on Casey Overpass begins

The first meeting of a MassDOT appointed working group that will help determine a future replacement of the Casey Overpass started off a little rough last week, with a handful of groups (including the Boston Cyclists Union) left asking to be included in the process.

The union has nominated Bob Dizon of JP Bikes to represent the Boston Cyclists Union, JP Bikes and Rozzie Bikes in the process, and we feel confident we will have a seat at the table at one of the most important discussions for the area in recent memory. Hanging in the balance is a very wide swath of land and road that connects Franklin Park, the Southwest Corridor, the Forest Hills MBTA Station and the Arboretum.

“Imagine the possibilities!” was a mantra of the presenters from MassDOT, and for good reason. The overpass itself, though safe for now, has a flawed design that is causing some of its concrete pedestals to crumble, according to MassDOT, which leaves a wide open question on what could replace it.

“The bridge really isn’t worth saving,” said MassDOT consultant and bridge engineer Dennis Baker, “It would take so much work that it really isn’t worth it.”

Whether it will be replaced with a new narrower and lower overpass, a parkway, or some other option will be the conversation buzzing in the surrounding neighborhoods this summer, ending only when MassDOT’s plans are finalized in September. If the neighborhood is split or cannot make a somewhat unified choice on the matter, MassDOT will be forced to make up its own mind on what to put in the overpasses stead, and proceed with the project. Funding for the project is to be provided by the $1 billion pool of money included in the Accelerated Bridge Program, which requires all projects be complete by 2016. This puts planning and construction on an unusually tight schedule.

Building the Casey Overpass in the 1950s
The Casey was originally built high enough to clear what became the elevated Orange Line. A new overpass would not need to be as high.

Park advocates and many (but not all) cyclists and others see an opportunity to install a parkway there that would resemble Frederick Law Olmsted’s original design, which was erased by the overpass’s construction in the 1950s. But other cyclists and scads of those who commute by car are concerned that getting rid of the overpass would cause traffic jams on Washington Street and Hyde Park Ave–two streets that receive a high flow of commuters due to the big funnel created by the presence of Franklin Park, Forest Hills Cemetery and the Arboretum.

Casey Overpass is currently overbuilt–serving far fewer cars than it was designed for in the 1950s–but the concerns for increased congestion on the already crowded pair of streets below it are understandable. According to the studies carried out so far, the peak rush-hour traffic on the Casey Overpass in one direction can reach 1,350 vehicles in one hour, but only 12,000 per day.  That’s not an extremely high number, as streets go, expressways and the Massachusetts Turnpike can carry ten to twenty times that many or even more, but it’s still a legitimate cause for concern. But on the other hand, there are also many more variables to consider when projecting what would happen in a parkway scenario, and MassDOT appears ready to pull all the stops to thoroughly analyze them. In essence, there’s a chance that that congestion might not be as bad as one would think, and there may be creative ways to mitigate it.

One of these is the concept of reduced demand. Using a license plate survey correlated with a complex study of how neighborhood demographics determine potential destinations, the state’s Central Transportation Planning Staff has already estimated that as much as 50% of the traffic using the overpass is likely regional traffic. In other words, as many as half of the cars using the overpass are coming from or going to places far enough away as to have alternate routes to get to where they’re going, such as Route 128.  If the overpass becomes a parkway with stoplights and slower traffic, and feels less like a highway to drivers, it may become a far less popular option for that regional traffic. Thus, far fewer cars may show up to cause congestion.

Second is a small efficiency that could come from simplifying the intersection of the Arborway and Washington Street. Currently left hand turns from each direction of Washington Street at that intersection happen during separate signal phases because of the way the turns are configured around one of the massive pedestals for the overpass. Without the base of the overpass to get around, that intersection could become simpler and those turns could happen at the same time, thus allowing more time for cars to get through the intersection on each signal cycle.

There are also much more sophisticated methods the designers of a new intersection could employ to improve the level of service there.

For the option of replacing the overpass, any future design coming from this process would not only be narrower (likely one lane in each direction), but also lower in the sky because it no longer has to clear the elevated Orange Line track that used to pass underneath it. The old elevated line was perhaps the first obstacle to break up the Arborway connection along the Emerald Necklace park system.

Whatever the case, new overpass or new parkway, the Boston Cyclists Union priority for this project will be making sure cyclists’ needs are fully addressed. Future meetings may present choices between designs for an overpass, designs for a parkway, or innovative solutions, but whether or not the Union takes a side on those will be up to you. As your representatives, we want to hear from you, our fellow union members and fellow cyclists.

As the process moves forward this summer, expect to see opportunities to help in determining what all of us would like to see. Perhaps it will be a survey, perhaps it will be a meeting of cyclists to determine a position, more likely both. And perhaps none of these efforts will result in a clear decision on the big question.

But more important than taking a side is pulling together all our opinions into on voice, so that any conflicting positions among us do not cancel each other out when they reach the ears of the decision makers. Speaking together is the best way to ensure cyclists’ needs are amply provided for, whatever the future holds.

The first public meeting for the Casey is on April 6, at 6pm, at the Agassiz School, 20 Child Street in Jamaica Plain. The more cyclists that regularly use or pass under the overpass we have at the meeting, the stronger our voice becomes in the planning process, so please show up and bring everyone you know!

MassDOT’s Casey Overpass Project page

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