Grand Junction Path’s star is rising

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Rendering of proposed Grand Junction Path. Image courtesy of Friends of Grand Junction Path

Hopes for the Grand Junction Path were emboldened last week on June 11 when the Cambridge City Council met to hear progress from all the parties involved. The Bike Union put the call out to Cambridge and Allston supporters for the 3pm hearing, and the Sullivan Chamber of City Hall was fairly packed with spectators, many of whom got up to speak after the official proceedings.

The city began the show, with the Cambridge Transportation Department’s Jeff Rosenblum (A.K.A. the founder of LivableStreets Alliance) explaining the feasibility of the project so far. He and his department created an overlay of the width needed to add a path next to the current track configuration and found that it was possible with the current tracks but, he said, “It is not clear that the multi-use path can fit alongside of two sets of rails throughout the corridor, more analysis is needed.”

Rosenblum also identified four distinct areas where advocates and the city can focus their energy to make the path a reality: The BU bridge crossing, MIT’s backside which has some “dirty” uses such as storage and truck deliveries, individual landowners on the north side of the path, and the tricky connection engineering-wise with the Somerville Community Path at the Northern end. All of these, he indicated, seemed to have good potential for solutions.

Tom Evans, Executive Director of the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority detailed his agency’s work on the first section of the path scheduled for construction: a small stretch along Galileo Way that doesn’t suffer from any competing use or other barrier. The plan calls for a path along Galileo that is well situated to connect to future paths on either end. It could be completed as early as this year, said Evans.

MIT spoke next. Currently embroiled in their own feasibility study, officials from the venerable institute spoke encouragingly of the path.

“We believe the [Grand Junction] Path has the ability to improve and enhance this area,” said Ken Williams, a senior real estate officer from MIT. Apart from their cautious support of the path however, MIT gave no clear indication of whether they thought the path was truly feasibility or not, saying the problem still needed to be studied further.

As part of their feasibility study, MIT will be holding an open house for the Grand Junction in which options for the path would be presented for the public to review. The Grand Junction Rail Corridor Open House will be Tues., June 24, 5pm-8pm at MIT’s Stata Center, 32 Vassar Street, Room 32-124, 1st floor.

After MIT finished answering questions from the city councilors present, Ned Codd spoke up. Codd is Assistant Secretary for GreenDOT at MassDOT. The GreenDOT plan he stewards aims to triple mode share of transit, biking and walking by 2030.

Codd was nominally supportive of the bike path but most of his testimony seemed to be obstructive to it, as he seemed to press for the preservation of two tracks for a future transit option. MassDOT and others, he said, have envisioned running Diesel Multiple Unit trains on these tracks, much like they have on the Fairmount “Indigo” Line and a recently envisioned Back Bay-Seaport connection.

His testimony triggered a line of hard questioning by City Councilors, primarily by Dennis Benzan and Nadeem Mazen, who seemed put off by the brush off. Asked if the state was funding or even starting to study the feasibility any addition of transit to the line, Codd responded no, but “conceptually there’s funding… It’s a long-term idea.”

Codd’s kibosh was the focus of public testimony later in the program, where many implored the council to not let “the perfect be the enemy of the good.” And cautioned Codd to consider the shorter-term benefits of increasing bicycle mode share. Any transit project would likely take at least 15 to 20 years to bring to fruition from an “idea” to a completed project.

Councilor Benzan asked pointedly “if [West] Station isn’t going to happen, why should we believe [transit on the Grand Junction] will?” Referring to the controversial MassDOT decision to decouple the I-90 straightening project in Allston from the addition of a new Commuter Rail station. Codd responded that the Governor is working with fewer transportation funds than he had asked for, and when that situation improves, more transit expansion can begin.

The Friends of the Grand Junction Path made the biggest splash of the day when their Rachel Burckardt, PE, put the kibosh on Ned Codd’s kibosh by explaining in detail how she devised a way to show that even at 15 minute intervals, trains could travel both ways on the current track configuration (which is partly single and partly double track).

“Basically, you just schedule the trains so they pass on the double tracks,” Burckardt told the Union after the hearing. “They do this on the commuter rail on the Newburyport and Rockport lines after Beverly, on the Haverhill line between Reading and just before Haverhill, and on parts of the Old Colony, Stoughton, and Needham lines. In other words, much of the commuter rail system is scheduled this way!”

“Wow,” remarked Councilor Dennis Carlone after Burckardt’s testimony.

Later that day, across town at a meeting of the advisory group for Allston’s I-90 Interchange straightening project or “People’s Pike,” Allston advocates kept their end of the path high up on the list of priorities. The MassDOT team was explaining the tight corridor they have to work in for one part of the highway’s replacement, suggesting a process that would include knocking two lanes off I-90’s viaduct which starts just west of the BU bridge at a time to build two new lanes and eventually replace the bridge. But to do so would include moving the bridge closer to Storrow Drive, which sits ironically upon the Storrow reservation, managed by the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).

During the hullaballoo that ensued, Bill Diegnan of Cambridge asked how the Grand Junction fit in to the new configuration and was assured that the path was still viable under this alternative. And, when the room of nearly 40 advisory group members unanimously rejected the idea of encroaching on DCR land, the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s Kairos Shen inserted himself in the proceedings and asked the group to support the idea of the BRA helping MassDOT create a few new alternatives. In the current MassDOT team, he argued, urban planning professionals are notably absent and this would help MassDOT address some community requests. The group unanimously supported this idea.

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