Rutherford Ave and Sullivan Square: The Vision of a New Linear Park and Walkable Neighborhood Betrayed by the “Underpass Option”

The underpass at Austin Street – a barrier between Charlestown and Bunker Hill Community College

 

By Professor Peter Furth

Please sign this petition in support of the Surface Option!

In the 1960’s, Rutherford Ave in Charlestown was converted into a 10-lane highway complete with underpasses and flyovers, decimating Sullivan Square in the process, so that it could carry all the traffic from the terminus of I-93 – which at the time reached from New Hampshire only to Medford – into Boston. Well, I-93 was finished several decades ago, capped off by the completion of the Zakim Bridge in 2003 which provides ample capacity for traffic from the north. Meanwhile, the incongruity of valuable land being wasted as unneeded highway ramps and parking lots so close to Boston and within walking distance of two MBTA stations –  Sullivan Square and Community College – makes it especially pressing to demote Rutherford Ave from a highway to urban avenue, and to turn Sullivan Square into a walkable grid with development parcels that supports a dense hub of transit-oriented development.

To this end, the City of Boston started holding planning meetings in 2008. City planners presented an exciting vision – with a 10-lane road shrunk to 5 lanes or so, a glorious, wide linear park could be built along the Charlestown neighborhood side (east side) of Rutherford Ave hosting a shared use path. At the same time, bicycling advocates saw the possibility of completing a bike path on the west side of Rutherford Ave as well.  Most of this path exists today – starting at North Station, it uses the Charles River Dam to reach Paul Revere Landing Park (which offers bike path connections to Cambridge and to the Charlestown Navy Yard), then follows the Miller’s River Path (“candy cane path”) to the service roads of Bunker Hill Community College, including a passage under Austin Street and paths through the parks just north of BHCC.  From there, only 1/3 mile of path along the west side of Rutherford Ave is needed to connect to Sullivan Square. A west-side path will be equally needed for pedestrians once Sullivan Square is redeveloped, for it will be the main axis between the square and BHCC.

As planning for the future of the roadway progressed, two critical decision points emerged, both concerning underpasses. First, along the main trunk of Rutherford Ave: would the underpass at Austin Street be retained? Second, at Sullivan Square: would the underpass connecting to the Alford Street Bridge be retained? Proponents of the underpass options emphasize the need for traffic capacity, raising the specter of gridlock and traffic swamping Charlestown’s local streets if they aren’t built.

The City’s consultant has fleshed out an “underpass” and a “surface” alternative. The underpass option, which includes both underpasses, is a disaster that betrays the original goal of the project. It keeps Rutherford Ave a highway, with a cross section is effectively 9 lanes wide for most of the trunk. It manages to squeeze in a shared use path along the neighborhood side – but for more than 50% of the corridor, no space is left for linear park; you’ll be walking or riding only a few feet removed from a 9-lane highway. There’s no space for separate sidewalks and queuing areas for pedestrians who – in large numbers – are heading to and from the Community College T station and the Lechmere area; they will be walking and queuing in the bike path. With the loss of the  anticipated linear park, the neighborhood loses a needed recreation amenity, cleaner air the comes from vegetation, and the noise protection that comes from being further removed from traffic.

At Sullivan Square, one might have expected that with an underpass diverting traffic, the surface roads would be narrower and thus better for pedestrians, but no – we still see intersecting 6-lane roads, which mean both long crossings and very long signal cycles. The main walking path from the neighborhood to Sullivan Square station involves crossing both 6-lane roads at this intersection, involving a 75-second delay for pedestrians. The bike path along the east side of Rutherford Ave. unceremoniously ends – no connection to the Alford Street Bridge (to Everett), or to Broadway (to East Somerville), or to the Mystic River.

The surface option, unfortunately, hasn’t been well formulated. Along the main trunk of Rutherford Ave., it has only two lanes per direction, leaving enough space for a 65-ft wide linear park as in the original concept. But while two lanes is enough to carry the northbound traffic, it isn’t enough for the large southbound morning peak. Not surprisingly, traffic models say it will lead to large backups and delays. That’s enough for City officials to dismiss the surface option, saying the underpasses are necessary. But there’s an easy fix – add another southbound lane! That solves the capacity problem, and still leaves 54 feet for a linear park and the need bike / ped paths. [One wonders: was the surface option deliberately created with an Achilles’ heel so that it could be easily dismissed?]

At Sullivan Square, the surface option differs little from the underpass option – its widest road has seven lanes versus the underpass option’s six. It could work … but again, some creative design could vastly improve it. The key here is to use a grid of one-way streets: Rutherford Ave and Alford Street along one axis, Maffa Way and Medford Street along the other. With a one-way grid, the complication of left turns disappears. The widest road would have 4 lanes. Traffic signals, needing to split time two ways instead of four, would be able to run on 60 s cycles, making things immensely better for pedestrians. It’s even better for traffic, which would get a green wave in all directions, but at a safe speed of 15-20 mph. With a smaller road footprint, it should be easy to continue the bike paths into Everett, into Somerville, and to the west bank of the Mystic River, where plans advancing for a new path heading upriver.

The original concept for Rutherford Ave / Sullivan Square remains compelling: demote the highway and, with the space thus redeemed, create a wonderful linear park, continuous bike paths, and a walkable grid for urban development at Sullivan Square. On the trunk, the underpass option requires so much road space that it utterly fails to meet these objectives. A surface option is clearly the way to go, but needs to be improved so that it prevents traffic disaster at Austin Street. At Sullivan Square, a more creative solution is needed, one that genuinely creates a walkable grid.

Local residents continue to press BTD in support of a surface option. I believe that Boston Cyclists Union members should support their efforts to demote the Rutherford Ave highway and create Boston’s next linear park.  I encourage you to sign the Rutherford Corridor Improvement Coalition’s (RCIC) petition listed below.  RCIC is also asking for participation at BTD’s upcoming meeting on Wednesday, November 15th, 6:30-8:00 pm at the Knights of Columbus building, 545 Medford Street, Charlestown.

The RCIC petition can be found at bit.ly/RCICPetition.  Please sign today!

You can see copies of the May 2017 graphics on the RCIC website:  http://www.rcic-charlestown.org/most-recent-graphics-may-2017.html

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