Saturday, May 23, 2009

Speed Isn’t What It Used To Be

When we think of “high speed” and “rapid” we may think of something really fast, maybe like a rocket.

But when our Federal government defines these terms, it isn’t all that it should be.

High Speed Rail (HSR)
Take “high speed” rail, for an example. Now, when I think of that term, I’m thinking the Bullet Train in Japan or the TGV in France. Speeds over 150 mph up to 200 mph, and maybe faster.

Is that what our Federal government is thinking? Not quite. While our President declares “Make no little plans,” the legislation is designed to lower expectations. “High speed rail” is 110 mph, a full 40 mph below the top speed of Amtrak’s Acela.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)
BRT is supposed to be a blending of buses and rapid transit. So, it should be as fast as rail rapid transit (like a subway), but cheaper to build with buses and simple pavement replacing more costly and complex rails, power and signals systems.

In theory, the buses would run on a separate busway or a highway HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lane, therefore traveling “rapidly” (say, 40 to 60 mph) between stations.
Let’s contrast theory and practice.

In Boston, the Silver Line is considered BRT. There’s the Washington Street Silver Line, where the bus has a bus lane and some advantages (pre-emption) at the frequent traffic lights. So, maybe between stops and red lights, the bus may get up to about 25 to 30 mph. But when you add in time waiting for lights, the speed averages maybe 15 or 20 mph. What’s so rapid about that? Many in Roxbury and the South End know we’re not talking travel times equivalent to the long-gone elevated Orange Line on Washington Street.

Then there’s the Silver Line from South Station to Logan Airport and City Point in South Boston. Part is in a subway tunnel, not unlike the four rail transit lines (Green, Red, Orange and Blue). Now the Red Line travels at up to 50 mph in the subway. Even the Green Line can hit 30 mph or more in the subway. So what about that BRT? The Silver Line tunnel opened with a posted speed limit of 10 mph. Even at 15 or 20 mph, is that what you’d call “rapid.”

Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Line
Another local speed misnomer is the least know segment of Boston’s rail transit system – the trolley line between Ashmont and Mattapan. When it opened on August 29, 1929, it was truly “high speed.” A typical trolley line ran in city streets, which was fairly slow going. The “High Speed” line was built along a partially abandoned rail line, avoiding city streets, and reaching “high speeds” up to 30 mph.

Today, the line still runs, with streetcars approaching 70 years old, still reaching speeds approaching 30 mph. But to many, it’s still known as the High Speed Line.

Speed certainly isn't what it used to be!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Focus on Your Driving!

Stories recently in the news:

  • MBTA drive crashes while texting
  • Women dies when hit by driver painting her nails
  • Passengers killed when commuter rail engineer crashes train while on cell phone
  • Man gets in accident driving while eating cereal with milk

These are all recent tales of driving while distracted. The common sense lesson is simple! No matter what mode of transportation: Focus on your driving!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Longfellow Bridge Reconstruction -- Long Overdue but Plans Need Work!

The Longfellow Bridge between Cambridge Street in Boston and Main Street/Broadway in Cambridge is finally in the design stages of a long-awaited rehabilitation. Much of the minor steel framing needs repair/ replacement, the entire deck needs replacing, and the towers are leaning and need to be rebuilt.

Good news: Mass. Highway Dept. (MHD) has the design under way and just filed its Environmental Notification Form (ENF), part of a state environmental review process for projects.

Not so good news: This is a vital transportation link (Red Line, pedestrians, bicycles and motor vehicles) and these links need to be better accommodated during construction.

I have copied my letter of comments on the ENF below, which details my concerns regarding how the project is accomplished.

Though I may have some concerns, it is paramount that the project proceed as soon as possible, once the construction staging issues are incorporated into the project plans.


Secretary Ian A. Bowles
Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs
Attn: Anne Canaday, EEA #14384
100 Cambridge Street, Suite 900
Boston, MA 02114-2524

RE: Massachusetts Highway Department (MHD)
Reconstruction of Longfellow Bridge
Boston & Cambridge, MA
Comments on Environmental Notification Form

Dear Sec. Bowles:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on this important project. For the ease of identifying comments in contrast to statements and discussions, my comments are in underlined italics.

The Longfellow Bridge is an important multi-modal link connecting Boston and Cambridge and part of a regional system of roadways, transit lines, walkways and bicycle facilities. It is also an important route for emergency preparedness, in that it leads directly to a major hospital (Massachusetts General).

I have multiple interests in this project.

First, around 1982, I was the project engineer with DeLeuw, Cather & Company, consultants for the MBTA for the design of the platform extensions of Charles Station onto the Longfellow Bridge:

  • MHD and their consultants (Jacobs) can blame me for the difficulty of the pinch point created where the platform extensions reach onto the bridge. I designed those pinch points into the roadway to accommodate the platform extensions.

  • Back in 1982, I stood with Dave Lenheart of the then MDC on Span #1[1] of the bridge with the deck opened up as we looked upon the rusted structural steel. Thus, I can say personally that this repair project is long overdue and MHD should expedite this project to the extent possible.

[1] Span #1 is labeled on sheet 32 of 59 (titled “Construction Stages, Stage 1, Sheet 1 of 4”) in Attachment 2 to the ENF.

Second, I use all 4 modes of the bridge, particularly in getting to work. Normally, I take the Red Line (over the Longfellow Bridge). When the weather is nice, I try to bike in once or twice a week (over the Longfellow Bridge). When I need a vehicle for work-related travel, I drive (over the Longfellow Bridge). And sometimes if the weather is nice (like after the MEPA hearing last week) I walk home (over the Longfellow Bridge).

So, clearly I have a stake in ensuring that the project will maintain all four modes during and after construction.

Final Configuration
I applaud the project design as presented in the Environmental Notification Form (ENF) in its inclusion of all four modes at the end of construction: pedestrians, bicycles, the Red Line and motor vehicles.

Alternatives for Eastbound (Inbound) Boston ApproachPage 6 of the ENF describes three alternatives were developed to address the pinch point caused by the inbound platform extension I designed some 27 years ago.

At first, I would agree with the preferred alternative 1 for the Boston approach (as described on page 6 of the ENF). This alternative accommodates a sidewalk, a full bike lane and 3 approach lanes to the Charles Circle signalized intersection.

However, it moves one retaining wall into parkland. Regarding this issue, there are both state and federal concerns:

  • From a historic resources perspective, I agree with the ENF’s assessment that although there is some loss of parkland, this is compensated by the historically-sensitive treatment of the relocated wall. Assuming the Massachusetts Historic Commission (MHC) and the Boston Landmarks Commission (BLC) concur, this issue should not delay the project in terms of the historic approval process on the state and local level. The MHD should confirm that moving the wall is acceptable to the MHC and BLC.

  • On the other hand, this is a 4(f) parkland taking from a federal perspective. Since MHD intends to use federal funds in part for this project, MHD should address this issue of whether the 4(f) issue will delay the project start-up by requiring a separate environmental review under the federal NEPA process. The MHD should address this issue of possible project delay due to 4(f) issues related to federal funding.

Conclusion on Alternatives:
I have different conclusions that depend on whether there would be a delay in federal funding due to 4(f) issues:

  • If there are significant schedule delays in project startup due to parkland taking, then I agree with the ENF’s conclusion that Alternative 1 is the best.

  • If there are significant schedule delays in project startup due to parkland takings, then I recommend Alternative 3 (no wall relocation) combined with the widening of the sidewalk over Span #1 as included in Alternative 1.

Construction Staging
During construction, it is essential that all four modes be accommodated. But more than that, construction presents an opportunity for an exemplary approach: incorporating energy and environmental policy by shifting modal use from motor vehicles to the more modes that expend less energy and pollute less (i.e., walking, bicycling and transit). The MHD should look into ways to reduce motor vehicle trips and shift trips to the other 3 modes.

Page 7 of the ENF describes two options, both of which raise some concerns.

Option 1 would take an estimated 12 to 18 months less than Option 2. It would maintain Red Line service and one 10-foot wide sidewalk for pedestrians. However, it would maintain only one inbound travel lane a little over 14.5 feet for both bicycles and motor vehicles. Outbound bicycles and motor vehicles would be detoured over the Cragie Bridge. Problem with this approach include the following:

  • The outbound bicycle detour is simply not reasonable. Bicyclists will not detour to the traffic-congested Leverett Circle area. Rather, they will travel westbound on the open sidewalk. A better plan for two-way bicycle accommodation during construction is needed.

  • The outbound motor vehicle detour into the traffic-congested Leverett Circle is equally unreasonable. The peak hour delays waiting for several light cycles at the Circle and at the Land Blvd./Gilmore Bridge/O’Brien Highway intersection. I would also detour traffic towards the site of the relocation of Lechmere Station for the Green Line Extension at the exact same timeframe as this project. Furthermore, consideration should be given to detouring traffic towards the Harvard Bridge (Massachusetts Avenue). A better detour plan is needed that considers a more regional approach and considers other EOT projects (e.g., Green Line Extension)

  • However the greatest concern is for emergency access. With MGH at Charles Circle, the Longfellow is an important ambulance access route. Likewise, the bridge is used for other emergency purposes including mutual response to fires as well as police and other law enforcement agencies. Let me emphasize the importance of this issue. Two years ago, my son and I went bike riding. Once home, his heart rate did not decline. After a few hours my wife took him to Cambridge Hospital. Once they realized the situation, they were immediately rushed to Massachusetts General Hospital where they had the experienced doctors who know what immediate action was needed. My son is fine now, in part because the ambulance was able to cross the Longfellow Bridge without delay.I cannot underestimate the importance of maintain emergency access in both directions.

    o MHD should consult with Boston, Cambridge and state emergency departments (police, fire, EMS) before any further consideration of Option 1.
    o MHD should not pursue Option 1 without provisions for two-way emergency access across the Longfellow Bridge 24/7/365 throughout construction.

Option 2 would take an estimated 12 to 18 months longer than Option 1. It would maintain Red Line service and one 10-foot sidewalk in all phases. It would maintain motor vehicle access in either direction in one or two lanes. It is unclear from the plans included how bicycles would be accommodated during construction.

  • Option 2 is clearly superior with regards to emergency access and the detouring of traffic. Still, construction activities will inevitably cause some motorists to seek alternative routes, be they the Craigie or Harvard Bridges or other routes.

  • Option 2 does not clearly indicate how two-way bicycle accommodation will be maintained during construction.

  • Comments:
    o Option 2 should be considered the preferred option
    o MHD should better describe how two-way bicycle access will be provided through all the states of construction.

Storm DrainageThe ENF states on page 10 that it is not practical to meet all stormwater standards. In particular, the ENF states there is no room on the bridge for sediment collection or pollution removal systems. Also, with the exception of the first 2 spans in Boston, no runoff will be diverted to existing storm drainage systems. For the spans over water, the scuppers will simply drain into the river.

While full diversion of flow does not appear practical, improved water quality could be obtained if it were possible to divert the water quality volume (WQV) or first 1 inch of runoff to some form of sediment control and/or water quality enhancement device.

Consideration of attempting to treat about 1” of runoff was brought up by the representative of the Charles River Watershed Association at the ENF meeting on April 30th.

Based on that comment, my thought was to see if there could be one device per span, maybe located over the pier. The scuppers would drain to this device, which would retain the WQV and let the excess flow discharge to the river. This would at least provide some treatment for the initial runoff, which is more heavily laden with contaminants.

As the ENF does not include any WQV calculations, I have provided a calculation of the WQV for one span of the bridge, based on 1” of runoff:

A = W x L
A = (2’ +11’ + 11’ + 5’ + 10’) x 150’
A = 5,850 SF
A = 0.134 Acres (based on 1 acre = 43,560 SF)

WQV = 1” x A
WQV = 1” x 0.134 Acres
WQV = 0.134 Acre-Inches
WQV = 487.5 CF

This represents a rectangular tank approximately 6’ x 8’ x 10’. Other shapes could be used. The device would need convenient accessways from the roadway to allow inspection, cleaning and other maintenance.

A tank to hold a WQV based on 1/2" of runoff would be half that size.

I am not familiar enough with the structure to determine if such devices could be stowed somewhere above the piers, so they are maintainable but do not create a visual impact.

MHD should consider whether it is feasible to provide some sediment removal and water quality enhancement, be it for a 1” WQV or even 1/2" WQV. This could be by a tank, maybe with a vortex device or a filter, located in the piers. Flows greater than the WQV would overflow, either at the scupper itself or at the tank.

Other Comments

  • Section III (Consistency) should include discussion of:
    o Consistency with Grown Policy, and
    o Consistency with the Massachusetts Bicycle Plan.

Thank you for the opportunity to review the ENF for this very important project. I look forward to seeing the bridge under construction soon and restored to structural good repair in the years to come.