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Starts & Stops

Nonexistent guard rails at Fenway’s Bowker Overpass causes concern

The guard rails on the Fenway’s Bowker Overpass have been missing for years.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

The guard rails on the Fenway’s Bowker Overpass have been missing for years.

It’s been bugging Daniel McCarthy of Arlington for years: The Bowker Overpass — the bridge that carries traffic from Boylston Street in the Fenway over Commonwealth Avenue to Storrow Drive — has been missing its guard rails for years.

“Without the overpass there is nothing but one small barrier protecting drivers from a 20-30 foot drop to their death,” McCarthy wrote. “One simple skid could lead to such a tragedy.”

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At first glance, his concerns seemed a little dramatic: How often do vehicles fly off the sides of overpasses Thelma-and-Louise style?

But then, there was the morning in early August when a Globe delivery truck took an epic leap off the side of the highway. And then, the dangling beer truck , four days later.

MassDOT spokesman Mike Verseckes acknowledged that the barriers were low. Federal standards require bridges to have guard rails that are at least 2 feet 8 inches, and what exists on either side of Bowker Bridge are well below that height. That may be one of the reasons why it’s on Transportation for America’s list of structurally deficient bridges. The national transportation advocacy organization gave Bowker a grade of 4 out of 10 when it came to the state of the bridge’s deck.

The overpass used to belong to the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, before it was transferred over to MassDOT in 2009. In the past, its outside railing was higher, but it had been removed.

MassDOT is looking to start a bridge deck replacement, putting the estimated $12 million out to bid this month, with work expected to begin in spring 2014 and conclude in the summer of 2015.

The barrier in the middle of the bridge will also be replaced to match the height of the new outside guard rails.

The project will make it safer for drivers, and it will cut down on the need for emergency repairs to the bridge — repairs that can become necessary at any time of day or night, causing disturbances in the neighborhood.

“The overall bridge deck is in poor condition and requires frequent emergency repairs,” Verseckes said. “Because they are emergency in nature, they can be required at any time, such as during peak travel hours, causing an inconvenience to drivers, or at night, which generates noise impacts in a dense residential area.”

“This project will keep the overpass in a serviceable condition for approximately 10 to 15 years,” Verseckes said. “But more to the point, this job will minimize the need for unexpected deck repairs and the attendant headaches they cause.”

Driving declines
in the Bay State

Massachusetts residents are driving less than they have in years, and that number is steadily declining around the country, according to a study released Thursday by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group.

Using data from the Federal Highway Administration, the liberal-leaning consumer advocacy group said today that the number of vehicle miles traveled in Massachusetts dropped by 4 percent between 2004 and 2011, a decrease in driving that has occurred in 45 other states over the last decade.

The reason behind the driving drop-off?

The advocacy organization contended that commuters increasingly prefer public transportation, and used the study’s findings to argue for government investment in transit and bicycling options rather than the expansion of highway systems.

“It’s time for policy makers to wake up and realize the driving boom is over,” said the group’s organizer, Kristin Jackson. “We need to reconsider expensive highway expansions and focus on alternatives such as public transit and biking, which people increasingly are using to get around.”

According to the study, the number of vehicle miles traveled nationally is at the same level as in 1995, after peaking in 2004.

During that time period, only four states experienced an increase in the average number of miles each resident drove: North Dakota, Alabama, Nevada, and Louisiana.

Massachusetts ranks 41st in the country in the highest number of vehicles miles traveled per person, with the average Bay State resident driving 8,318 miles per year in 2011.

In a statement, former governor Michael S. Dukakis said he felt the report spoke to the need for improved public transit options.

The study, he said, “now confirms what has been apparent to many of us for some time: people are sick and tired of wasting their time in traffic and want to live in communities that are close to their work with excellent public transportation systems,” Dukakis said in the statement.

The report is a follow-up to another study, released by the national Public Interest Research Groups in May , that contended that people around the country are becoming less dependent on vehicles and more willing to use public transit or bicycles for transportation.

Critics of that report argued the driving drop-off was a result of the recession and that vehicle miles traveled would increase once the economy improves.

Kirstie Pecci, staff attorney at the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said Thursday that this report combats those notions because it shows little correlation between the states with the biggest decreases in driving and those hardest hit by the recession.

“This report takes the idea of economic impact off the table,” Pecci said. “There are a lot of factors that are playing into this, but it’s not the economy — it’s the way that we’re changing how we think about driving.”

Of the 10 states with the largest driving drop-off, only two are also on the list of states with the worst unemployment rates.

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

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