Unchoke the throat

In Pike reconstruction, add boardwalk or extend shoreline

FRIDAY IS THE DEADLINE for comments on the state’s billion-dollar plan to rebuild the Mass Pike through Allston. So far, most news has focused on the project’s billion-dollar price tag and the proposed West Station transit hub. But this massive project needs to be more than a highway and transit station – it should make a healthier and more usable Charles River that supports the clean transportation vital for our economy and the future of our planet.

Today, if you walk, run, or bike along the Charles River in Boston from the River Street Bridge to the BU Bridge, you find yourself sandwiched between speeding cars on your right and an unkempt bramble on your left. If you’re not overwhelmed by the rush of cars, you might peer through the overgrowth along the narrow, curved path for a view of the Charles River – but watch out for runners and bikes trying to get past.

This area where the Pike, train tracks, Soldiers Field Road, and walking/biking path squeeze between the river and Boston University is known as “the throat” because it’s where everything comes together. The walking/biking path is both too narrow and too close to the highway.

Adding greenspace would reduce the exposure of walkers/runners/bikers to the pollution generated by all those vehicles and follow the recommendation recently voiced in the Lancet medical journal that “exercise should be enjoyed in urban green space areas away from high density traffic.”

When the Mass Pike and Soldiers Field Road are rebuilt, this will be the right time to “unchoke the throat.” WalkBoston, the Charles River Conservancy, and the design firm Sasaki teamed up to generate several options that could create safe and welcoming separated paths for walking and biking by either building a boardwalk or making a modest extension of the shoreline. Boating on the river would continue unimpeded thanks to the river’s ample width. A soft, gradual slope could improve wildlife habitat and help to naturally clean storm water before it reaches the river.

Many world-class cities are making urban rivers more accessible. Rivers in Portland, Oregon, New York City, and Philadelphia have boardwalks that improve recreation and active transportation. The Chicago Riverwalk currently under construction and designed by Sasaki received a Global Award for Excellence from the Urban Land Institute who noted that with “sweeping views and new connectivity, this civic amenity reunites the river and the city.”

There are examples in Massachusetts, as well. In Cambridge, a boardwalk was built in the Kendall Square Broad Canal in 2009. Later this month, DCR is hosting meetings about a proposed 800-foot pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the Mystic River connecting Everett, Somerville, and Charlestown.

A new Charles River path and park should be built regardless of how the Pike is rebuilt. But to minimize the project’s cost and maximize access to the Charles River paths, MassDOT should rebuild the highway at-grade instead of building a new and costly viaduct. With the highway on the ground, it becomes possible to build new footbridges over the highway and rail lines to connect Boston University, Commonwealth Avenue, and Brookline to the improved river’s edge.

Building the new highway at-grade would greatly improve the view from Magazine Beach in Cambridge. Highway noise would be reduced because truck drivers would no longer need to rev their engines and ride their brakes getting up and down a steep viaduct. Drivers would have better sight-lines on this flatter and straighter road. The at-grade plan also builds two rail tracks on the Grand Junction line and replaces the 90-year-old rail bridge over Soldiers Field Road, which makes it easier to add transit between West Station in Allston, Kendall Square, and North Station.

And not to be overlooked is that an at-grade Pike saves the state $100-plus million in initial construction and many more millions in reduced maintenance. It would reduce the time and complexity of construction, sparing drivers and abutters from months of frustrating detours and delays.

Across the state, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Department of Conservation and Recreation have proven their commitment to healthy transportation by funding projects like the $5 million CoveWalk in New Bedford and the millions in annual state grants for walking and biking trails and parks and recreation.

State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack is clear about the need to reduce carbon emissions from the transportation sector and more people commuting by bike through Allston can be a step towards complying with Massachusetts’ 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, which calls for a reduction in emissions of 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

“A healthy community is one that promotes healthy people by ensuring access to safe places to walk, run, or bike,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “How we build our transportation systems and how we get people and things from one place to another affects our health.”

Meet the Author

Harry Mattison

Chair of the advocacy committee, Charles River Conservancy
Meet the Author

Despite their negative neighborhood impacts, the Mass Pike and Soldiers Field Road are integral parts of our region’s infrastructure. When hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to rebuild them, Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh should act locally on their pledges to honor the Paris Accords and clean the air by unchoking the throat.

Harry Mattison is an Allston resident and chair of the advocacy committee of the Charles River Conservancy and Wendy Landman is executive director of WalkBoston. Comments on the project can be sent to alexander.strysky@state.ma.us and should reference EEA # 15278. More info can be found at https://peoplespike.000webhostapp.com/www.PeoplesPike.org