ADVOCATES FOR bike lanes and walkable cities are gushing over the near-completion of the $19 million rehabilitation of the Boston University Bridge, even urging the public to send thank-you cards to the state Department of Transportation. Motorists, however, would be more likely to send letters of complaint after enduring 2 1/2 years of monstrous traffic jams.
Especially in light of the planned reconstruction of other bridges in the Charles River Basin between Boston and Cambridge, transportation officials should learn from the BU Bridge project. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to allow traffic to flow over the bridge during construction instead of shutting it down to allow for a rapid repair of structural deficiencies.
The BU Bridge project could have been completed in about half the time and for about 30 percent less money had it been closed during repairs, according to state highway administrator Frank DePaola. But there was no serious discussion about that option during the planning and design phases of the project.
More recently, said DePaola, conventional wisdom on closures has started to shift. There is greater willingness now to shut down bridges, ramps, and sections of highways. That’s how the state greatly accelerated the reconstruction of 14 bridges over I-93 in Medford last summer. In a matter of months, construction crews achieved what would have taken nearly four years to do by conventional methods.
The same principles should apply to upcoming work on the Western Avenue, River Street, and other bridges spanning the Charles River. Ultimately, it’s better to require drivers to find alternate routes for shorter periods than to force them to endure endless lane closures to accommodate construction crews.
Part of the particular frustration with the BU Bridge project is that it is no wider now than before construction. Five-foot-wide bike lanes have been added on both sides of the bridge’s deck, to the delight of cyclists. But instead of two traffic lanes in each direction, the new configuration reduced the number of traffic lanes from four to three.
The BU Bridge project, however, was a huge success for police officers on traffic details. Less expensive flaggers played only a minor role, despite all the noise made by the Patrick administration about keeping police detail costs in check.
The BU Bridge project involved a lot of pain for modest gain. Future bridge work along the Charles River can be accomplished for a lot less time, money, and aggravation.