For three years now, as workers build a new bridge over North Washington Street over the Charles River between the North End and Charlestown, all bridge traffic – including foot traffic along the famous Freedom Trail in Boston – was confined to a narrow “temporary” 3-way. bridge passing just upstream of the construction site.
But work on the new bridge has been suspended for more than a year. And the delays call into question whether the bridge’s original design – which dates back to 2018 and lacks dedicated bus infrastructure for transit riders to Chelsea – really makes sense for the year 2025, when the new bridge will finally open.
A bus traffic jam
The North Washington Street Bridge carries one of the busiest MBTA bus routes – the 111 – in addition to the less frequent 92 and 93 routes through Charlestown.
During rush hour, a bus weaves through bridge traffic, on average, every 2-3 minutes.
Before the pandemic, the City of Boston estimated that about 17,000 bus riders traveled along North Washington Street on a typical weekday.
In September 2019, just before the old North Washington Street Bridge was permanently closed, the City of Boston painted the southbound lane of North Washington Street red to give southbound buses a clear path from the bridge to their terminal stop at Haymarket tube station.
In the summer of 2021, the city added a second northbound bus lane.
But those bus lanes end abruptly at the Causeway Street traffic light, where Chelsea-bound bus drivers must weave into a single northbound lane over the temporary bridge that has been carrying traffic since late 2019.
When the new bridge finally opens, in late 2024 or early 2025, it will feature wider sidewalks, protected bike lanes and five lanes for motor vehicles.
According to current plans, only one of these lanes – operating only in the south direction – would be dedicated to buses:
Learn from Longfellow
Boston’s city climate plans call for a dramatic reduction in car traffic by 2030, just five years after the new North Washington Street Bridge opens.
In order to achieve these goals, streets like North Washington will need faster, more reliable bus service to serve more passengers. And they will also need to have fewer cars blocking the way.
“We’ve been living with construction work for years with only three lanes on a temporary bridge, so why add another car lane when we have the opportunity?” asked Becca Wolfson, the former executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union, in a phone conversation with StreetsblogMASS last week (note: Wolfson is also a member of the StreetsblogMASS board of directors).
We spoke with Wolfson because since the City of Boston and MassDOT adopted the current design of the new North Washington Street Bridge, she has been involved in successful efforts to reclaim space away from cars on three other bridges. of Charles River.
In 2018, Wolfson and the BCU delivered a petition with thousands of signatures to MassDOT urging them to maintain a single-lane configuration on the newly rebuilt Longfellow Bridge to make room for protected bike lanes.
The rehabilitation of the Longfellow Bridge, like the North Washington Bridge project, required several years of disruptive construction work. Meanwhile, motor vehicle traffic on the Longfellow was confined to a single lane, and only in the easterly direction.
“The past five years have shown that an inbound lane on the Longfellow is perfectly adequate to handle traffic crossing the bridge,” Ari Ofsevit, then a graduate student at MIT, wrote in an October 2017 email to Wolfson, Stacy Thompson, leader of the LivableStreets Alliance and Richard Fries, then executive director of MassBike.
After “several months of stakeholder meetings (with MassDOT) on traffic data,” Wolfson recalled, the state agreed to install flex-post bollards to provide some protection for cyclists on the east side of the bridge.
In 2019, MassDOT expanded this pilot by eliminating one of the two eastbound lanes on the west side of the bridge to create more space for the bike path, while the City of Cambridge got rid of one lane reserved for cars on its connecting segment of Main Street. .
Kendall Square gets rid of another car-only lane
Wolfson said the experiment on Longfellow showed MassDOT they could carve out car-only lanes to encourage more bike and transit use without creating a “traffic apocalypse.” This, in turn, allowed freeway advocates and officials to try similar changes on other bridges.
In 2019, the BCU was part of a coalition that asked MassDOT to try something similar on the Craigie Bridge (also known as the Charles River Dam Road).
And in fall 2021, sustainable transportation organizations successfully petitioned MassDOT to remove car-only lanes to create space for protected bike lanes on the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge over the Charles River – a project that MassDOT officials have since called “extremely successful”.
Designed in 2018, delayed until end of 2024
The 2018 design for the new North Washington Street Bridge already includes wider sidewalks and protected bike lanes.
But in the years since construction began on the project, the City of Boston, MassDOT, and the MBTA have all made major new commitments to improve bus service, especially on routes, like 111, that serve historically underinvested communities of color.
In addition to the new Boston City bus lanes that lead to the entrance to the new bridge, the MBTA plans to move even more buses to North Washington Street.
In MBTA’s newly revised bus network redesign, two proposed “high-frequency” routes will begin using the new bridge soon after it opens: the existing 111, plus a proposed new “T7” route that would cross a new downtown- Dedicated city busway on its route from Sullivan Square to South Boston.
Ofsevit, reached by phone last week, said painting a pair of central bus lanes on the new bridge – ideally with a new stop for 111 at City Square, to give Chelsea bus riders access to jobs in the Charlestown Navy Yard – would be “a very reasonable request”.
“We have 5 lanes (on the new bridge) and there really isn’t a need for that many lanes – it looks like an easy win,” Ofsevit said. “It’s a very good return on investment, because the investment is practically nil and the profit is really, really high.”
Ofsevit also noted that while advocates campaigned for safer bike lanes on the Longfellow Bridge just months before the bridge reopened to traffic, recent construction delays at the North Washington project give bus advocates much more time to advocate for a reserved lane.
In September 2021, MassDOT construction inspectors discovered 52 cracked welds at connection points on the new North Washington Street Bridge.
Inspectors also found cracks in bridge components being fabricated at Casco Bay Steel, a Maine subcontractor.
It took more than a year to figure out how to repair the steel girders and resolve disputes over responsibility for those repairs, which virtually halted all work on the structure of the new bridge.
“If not addressed, the steel would have significantly reduced its strength, capacity and structural integrity,” Jim O’Leary, assistant district construction engineer for MassDOT, said in a briefing. public online last month. “We discovered this early on, where these cracks could be repaired before we started placing concrete bridges.”
The bridge construction contractor is currently carrying out detailed repairs to these cracks. These repairs are expected to be completed in December, after which construction can resume after a 13-month delay.
The switch of traffic from the “temporary” bridge to the east side of the new bridge, which was originally scheduled to take place in December 2021, will be postponed to December 2023.
Even after that, buses and motor vehicles will still only share three lanes of traffic for another year until the temporary bridge is demolished and the west side of the new bridge is completed – a milestone currently scheduled for December. 2024 (nearly two years behind the original schedule).