Sunday, June 16, 2024

The William J. Reid Overpass at the Boston University Bridge rotary. (Image: Google)

Residents of Cambridgeport worry they’re being left out of planning for a $51 million state reconstruction of the Boston University Bridge rotary and its William J. Reid Overpass.

Though the land belongs to the state Department of Transportation, Cambridge officials said Monday that they’ll intercede on the neighborhood’s behalf for plans to be shared and discussed before the process goes too far.

“The rotary is bad. We’re grateful for infrastructure investment. That’s not the problem,” Cambridgeport Neighborhood Association president Rebecca Bowie said at the City Council meeting. “The problem is that this is our last chance for significant rethinking of the rotary in our lifetimes.”

Solutions for the area might involve changes to traffic patterns – which clog frequently, sometimes for hours, other residents testified – or a modified overpass. But “potential solutions for the area might involve the overpass as is,” Bowie said. “We are asking that MassDOT seriously consider the possibilities and challenges of different road configurations before they commit to this one – and that they take time to hear from people who live with this rotary every day to inform their decisions.”

Councillors acknowledged they were taken by surprise by the project. Sumbul Siddiqui said a Jan. 30 letter from Bowie sounded an alarm that she passed onward to city staff. A reminder came June 2 from the association after members visited the site with state Sen. Sal DiDomenico and state Rep. Mike Connolly. On Monday, Siddiqui urged the city again to act, drawing an assurance from City Manager Yi-An Huang that he was happy to have staff follow up.

Broader plans

Since state plans for the area were brought up five years ago at a Department of Conservation and Recreation public meeting, with a second meeting two months later, councillor Patty Nolan was “a little surprised to hear the city hasn’t been involved.”

“It’s more than five years ago that the community was invited to talk about some various options for dealing with that [structure] and what to do with the land underneath,” Nolan said. She suggested that DCR be added to Cambridge’s request to be included in state planning.

It’s not just the rotary and overpass, though. The city is ringed by and riddled with state projects: McGrath Highway; a “road diet” on Memorial Drive; work on Storrow Drive and the Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston; and the Grand Junction rail path. “All projects that involve the state as the main driver with heavy impacts on Cambridge,” councillor Paul Toner said, suggesting a roundtable meeting with state planners that addresses their combined effect.

A roundtable was not added to the final policy order, but a request to DCR commissioner Brian Arrigo was. Vice mayor Marc McGovern advised working with members of the state delegation – DiDomenico and Connolly being already involved – to get state staff to at least attend a Transportation Committee meeting.

Overpass improvements

The condition of the bridge worried Nolan, who recalled being told at the Morse School meeting that the overpass “was in really bad shape, and that we should be really concerned – and now it’s five or six years later.”

The overpass assessment she wanted from the state was taken care of, though. The state examines all its bridges annually, “so from a structural perspective, I am not overly concerned,” deputy city manager Owen O’Riordan said. “Though I recognize it’s old and it does need a significant long-term investment.”

The overpass last got reinforcement in 2013 – closed to all forms of traffic in both directions for much of the six months starting in early April – after structural issues in the bridge were discovered during one of those routine inspections. 

Roundabout approach

Improving the rotary was appealing to Cambridgeport residents who spoke and to elected officials. “This is one of those areas that’s not working well for anyone right now. It’s frustrating and scary to drive through, it’s scary to walk through, it’s scary to bike through,” councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler said, calling for a seat at the table for Cambridge to avoid the “chance we could get locked into the same design for another 40 or 50 years. We want to look at all the options.”

“While they do own the land, we end up feeling the brunt of the work if we’re not actually included in the conversations,” councillor Ayesha Wilson said of the state. “We’re starting to see this across several different areas.”