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Editorial

Charles River bike path underpasses present major opportunity

The Paul Dudley White Bike Path ringing the Charles River from Boston to Watertown is named for the Boston-born father of American cardiology, a staunch advocate of exercise. If Massachusetts can find the money, there’s a chance to improve on White’s legacy. For several years, the Charles River Conservancy has supported the building of bridge underpasses to create safe passage for cyclists, pedestrians, and runners. The advocates are focusing where the risk of accidents is greatest: on the Boston side of the Anderson Memorial Bridge from Allston into Harvard Square and the Western Avenue and River Street bridges leading to and from Central Square in Cambridge. Underpasses would address wide, dangerous crossings at all three bridges — creating a 7-mile, intersection-free path from Watertown to the Museum of Science.

The conservancy’s hopes were raised when the three bridges were slated to be rehabilitated under the state’s Accelerated Bridge Program. The Anderson Memorial, currently being reconstructed at a cost of $20 million, could have an underpass for about $2.5 million more, according to the conservancy’s engineering consultants. The cost is high because work started before a design for underpasses could be incorporated. But work on the Western and River bridges has now been pushed back to at least 2018 . That creates an opportunity for savings: The conservancy believes underpasses designed thoughtfully for the Western Avenue and River Street projects would cost $1.3 million and $950,000; adding them afterward would cost $1.8 million and $1.6 million.

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MassDOT says it’s sympathetic to the need for underpasses, and is even relocating utilities buried in bridge abutments to leave the option open. But it says it can’t afford to do more. The Patrick administration should find a creative way, perhaps including private donations, to make underpasses happen.

While the paths along the Charles are a key recreational amenity, they also figure in the region’s transportation planning. By a state count in 2011, more than 18,000 cyclists, pedestrians, and joggers used the network during two hours of a September evening commute. Building the underpasses would improve everyone’s freedom of movement.

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