Tuesday, June 27, 2017

MassDOT's reasoning for closing Riverbend Park is a farce

If you're going to close a park for a highway project, you better have a damn good reason for it. MassDOT's reasoning for closing Riverbend Park this summer in Cambridge doesn't even come close.

Here is a letter John Hawkinson obtained which MassDOT sent to the DCR asking them to keep Memorial Drive open in Cambridge for two Sundays. This letter was never made public, and at no time has MassDOT's public traffic management plans stated that Riverbend Park would be closed. The letter does not clearly cite a threat to public safety as would be required by state law. In addition, it does not even mention any mitigation for the temporary removal of parkland to satisfy federal 4(f) regulations. None of this has been this mentioned in any MassDOT traffic management plan: the idea was to keep it quiet until the last minute.

This is unacceptable.

The letter does not remove any doubt that there was no thought given to this by MassDOT, just a reaction that more roads are always the solution. This is wrong. The third paragraph of the letter gives the rationale for requesting the removal of this park. The reasons given are:

"The approved traffic management plan requires the use of Memorial Drive as a detour route for both automobiles and MBTA buses throughout the duration of the shutdown."

However, none of the portion of Memorial Drive used for the detour is affected by the Riverbend Park closures on Sunday. I've taken the liberty of adding big red arrows showing the southern extent of the Riverbend Park closure overlaid on MassDOT's traffic management plan:

Anyone see the problem here? I sure don't. It seems that all of the detours take place away from the area which is closed on Sundays. The only portion possibly affected would be one half of the BU Bridge southbound detour, except that is adjacent to the portion of Memorial Drive closed. The Riverbend Park closure would actually improve conditions for this portion of the detour, since cars making a left from Memorial Drive to Western Avenue would have the entire green cycle to make the turn, from both lanes, since there would be no oncoming traffic.

Yet there have been no traffic studies or traffic counts.

The "rationale" continues:

"It is important that Memorial Drive remains open to all vehicular traffic during the above requested dates to ensure the smooth, orderly and safe routing of traffic around the limits of the project."

It is true that we need to have safe, orderly traffic! But Riverbend Park does not affect the portions of Memorial Drive affected by any traffic detour. In fact, by closing Memorial Drive, some drivers may choose to avoid the area altogether, reducing traffic in the project area and reducing congestion.

There is simply no explanation for MassDOT requesting that DCR keep Memorial Drive open, and Riverbend Park closed, during the Commonwealth Avenue Bridge project. With more construction upcoming in the area, we need to make sure that MassDOT has a very high standard for any adverse impacts to parkland. In this case, they have failed to meet such a standard.

Call your Representatives, call your Senators, and demand that Riverbend Park remain OPEN.

Update: I received a response to a call placed to MassDOT. The general process, which apparently happened behind closed doors, was as follows: someone from the "public safety" community asked that the road remain open. MassDOT, without any data or modeling (I asked if any existed and was told that it did not), decided that it was, in fact, a public safety issue, and requested that the DCR keep the roadway open. There was no public process, and the letter only cites the "smooth, orderly and safe routing of traffic," saying nothing about emergency vehicles.

It turns out, reading the letter closely, MassDOT doesn't even know where the park is. They request a suspension of "the ban of the use of motor vehicles on Memorial Drive between Western Avenue and Mount Auburn Street." Yet Riverbend Park extends between Western Avenue and Gerry's Landing Road; it runs parallel to but never intersects Mount Auburn Street. This is a small oversight, but shows how little mind was actually paid to this issue.

The staffer I spoke with mentioned that it would impact emergency vehicle access to Mount Auburn Hospital (which is not accessed from Memorial Drive) and to the LMA. If there were traffic, then emergency vehicles could use Memorial Drive by moving barricades (this could be staffed by state police traffic details) and then use the BU Bridge, which will be open to buses and emergency vehicles. But that wasn't brought forth as an option, there was no process involved, and instead the "close the park" was put forward as a solution, one still looking for a problem.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Call to Action: Protect Riverbend Park from DCR Overreach

Since 1975, Memorial Drive in Cambridge has been closed to cars every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., transforming in to Riverbend Park. Originally the idea of a neighbor in Cambridge Isabella Halsted, it is one of the oldest such continual "open streets" events in the country, and it is enjoyed by thousands of residents from across the Commonwealth every week, who can have eight quiet hours to walk along the river without the constant din of automobile traffic.

Except the DCR doesn't seem to like it. Columnists have noted in the past that they often let cars on to the road before the closure officially ends. The city has requested that the closings continue year-round, but to no avail. DCR is required to close the roadway to traffic by statute passed in 1985, but they do the bare minimum.

There is a condition in that statute, which is that:
the [DCR] may at its discretion suspend any authorized closings, if in the judgement of said commission such authorized closing poses a threat to public safety and should any emergency arise in which said commission in its judgement deems it necessary to alter the authorized closure.
This is sensible. If there were, for example, a fire along the roadway which required response, or if Soldiers Field Road was closed for repairs, we'd want the DCR to have the authority to open it to traffic. But this summer, the DCR is taking a different tack. With the closure of some lanes of the Turnpike for a construction project, MassDOT is worried that there might be some traffic in the area. They asked DCR to suspend the closure. Traffic is not a threat to public safety—if it were, Boston would be unsafe every day from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. (longer if the Sox are in town)—but the DCR rolled over and said "sure, we'll close it, what do we care?"

They may not care, but we do. DCR may not realize it, but this is important to many residents of Cambridge, Boston and the Commonwealth as a whole. They need to hear from us, and from our legislators. If you use Riverbend Park on Sundays—if you've taught your kid to ride a bike there, or walked along the river there, or ridden a Hubway there, or drawn in chalk there, or simply enjoyed the quiet along the riverbank there—it's time to take action. Here's how:

  1. Contact your legislator. If you don't already know your Senator and Representative, you can find your legislator here. (Here are maps of districts, you can find a zoomed-in map of House districts here and Senate districts here). Remember to contact your own representatives first. They represent you.

    Here is a sample letter to write; feel free to customize it and remember to be polite, concise and specific.

    Dear Sen ___ and Rep ___,

    You may have seen a recent Globe article that the DCR plans to close Riverbend Park in Cambridge for two weekends this summer.

    This is unacceptable. Statute stipulates that DCR may only authorize such a suspension of the park if there is a "threat to public safety". It is hard to fathom how a construction project on a separate roadway in Boston constitutes such a threat.

    Riverbend Park has been a part of Cambridge for 40 years, and I visit the park with my family every weekend to experience the riverbank without the constant drone of nearby traffic. I do not support this suspension. I would ask that you reach out to DCR and demand that they rescind this suspension immediately.

    Thank you,

    Your name
    Your address
    Your telephone/email

    Ask specifically that they follow up with you and let you know what they have found.
  2. Contact the DCR. Your state tax dollars pay for the DCR's work. Let them know you're unhappy. The contact for these announcements is Mark Steffen, and his email is Mark.A.Steffen@state.ma.us. Better yet, give him a call: 617-360-1715. His phone should be ringing off the hook. Contact the DCR in general as well, and remember, be firm but polite. If the DCR feels that the public is behind them, they may be more willing to change their minds. Remember, phone calls are better than emails, but both are good.
  3. Contact MassDOT. They are the ones who have made this unreasonable request in the first place. According to the project page, the best contact is James Kersten at 857-368-9041. His phone shouldn't stop ringing on Monday, either.
  4. Contact the Governor. Again, calling is better than email. Don't take too much of their time, but make sure to explain yourself and your position. The DCR works for the Governor. If they hear from enough of us, they might be able to make a call to turn this around. Here's their number: 617.725.4005.
  5. If you live in Cambridge, contact the city council. You can email all of your councilors at council@cambridgema.gov. Note that the council has already asked that Riverbend Park be extended year-round, so they're on our side, but it's good for them to hear from their constituents about it. You can also contact the city manager to ask that he take action as well: 617-349-4300.
Obviously, wait until Monday to call. Get a message? Call again. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. It's time to be squeaky.

Is this small potatoes compared with abhorrent policy on the federal level? Yes. But in Massachusetts, we don't have much say beyond calling our legislators and asking they fight the good fight. As Cambridge's own Tip O'Neill often said: all politics is local. Your voice matters. Your voice can be heard.