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Mass. seeking new ideas for underutilized overpasses

This section of the I-93 underpass was made into an art installation for Spring ArtWeek earlier this year.The Landing Studio

Who knew that those shadowy swaths of land underneath highway overpasses could be prime real estate?

Earlier this month, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation made a request for proposals for their new "Infra-Space" initiative — a wonky way of saying "figure out something useful to do with all those sketchy places underneath the highway."

The program was created following the agency's success repurposing the Interstate 93 overpass that separates the South End from South Boston. The space under that bridge was notable for its lack of lighting, and the general depressing nature of the area invited illicit activity and unsavory characters. Locals nicknamed it "The Stacks," perhaps a reference to its dark and dusty atmosphere.


Earlier this year, MassDOT said they're turning the space into a parking lot, with designated spots for the Pine Street Inn and Zipcar car-sharing services, as well as spots for locals to store their bikes. The company hired to operate and maintain the parking lot has promised to hold a dozen community events there every year. And, MassDOT coordinated the installation of colored lights that are projected onto the underside of the I-93 viaduct to brighten up the place at night. (Think, a more tranquil version of a Led Zeppelin light show.)

More improvements, including a pedestrian and bike pathways alongside trees and plants, are also planned.

Now, MassDOT is thinking bigger, and they're seeking ideas from the community on how to create inviting spaces in other underused spots underneath elevated roads, bridges, and viaducts.

"Large, elevated roadways can sometimes create barriers, both physical and psychological, for pedestrians, bicyclists, neighborhoods, and economic development," the agency wrote in the preface to the proposal application. "MassDOT desires to address this conflict by improving the relationship between the transportation infrastructure and adjacent neighborhoods."

What they're looking for: ideas that will increase connections among neighborhoods, promote the arts, help the environment, provide a space for community events, or create some kind of commercial use.


It's not a crazy concept. Other cities have used such spaces in unconventional ways. In Portland, Ore., the site underneath a major bridge was co-opted by skateboarders seeking a spot to try out tricks; the makeshift course became so popular the city eventually turned it into a public park.

Other cities have created parks, basketball and volleyball courts, as well as auditoriums or theater spaces.

One last idea, from Wallace, Idaho: the aptly named "Under the Freeway Flea Market" — which, as you can imagine, brings people to gather, shop, and sell their wares in an otherwise underused space.

Massachusetts doesn't exactly have a shortage of weekend open-air markets, but who knows? Maybe it could happen here.

Proposals to MassDOT are due Sept. 16.

But seriously — NO left turns

Ellen Penso of West Newton wrote in with a concern about a Newton intersection fraught with problems.

"This is a road that is just waiting for a head-on collision," Penso wrote.

To be specific, it's the Hess gas station along Commonwealth Avenue, close to the Newton Marriott. Of course, Commonwealth Avenue goes in both directions, but on this stretch of the thoroughfare, there's a grassy median separating the two sides. That means that when you're pulling out of the gas station, you can only make a right-turn and head east — otherwise, you'll head straight into oncoming traffic.


The problem, she said: The no-left-turn sign sitting in the median is too small. And even more importantly, it skews east when compared with the gas station exit — which means that, if you plan on turning left and assume it's an allowable move, you may never see the no-left-turn sign, because you're looking in the other direction.

It turns out that the awkwardly shaped intersection has a long history of causing traffic concerns. Back in 2008, when the gas station changed hands from Mobil to Hess, residents feared that the upgraded station might draw additional patrons — and that an increased number of collisions, or near-collisions, would follow.

Six years later, it would seem that concerns remain.

"A larger NO LEFT TURN sign needs to be placed in the median," she said, "where the cars exiting the station can clearly see it."

A new crosswalk, and a goodbye

Some great news from my neck of the woods: There's a new crosswalk in front of my house.

Not exactly thrilling stuff, but I live close to a well-traveled intersection in Dorchester — Everett Square, to be exact — and the crosswalks have seen much better days. They're not fancy crosswalks, simply paint on pavement, but they're interesting because they're designed in a pattern that mimics the look of cobblestone. I imagine that's part of an attempt to add some elegance to the street on the cheap, while avoiding the hassles of crumbling stones and the challenges of plowing snow off the brick in the winter. I also wonder if it's a traffic-calming measure, a suggestion to drivers' subconscious that the crossing will be bumpy, encouraging motorists to slow.


Regardless, the paint had worn off almost entirely in places, and in recent days, crews began installing a fresh layer. Not only does it look swanky, it brings more attention to the need to halt for pedestrians. I was surprised to see how excited it made me to see this small, subtle improvement in transportation infrastructure every morning and evening to and from work. It really brightened my week.

I bring this up because of late I have been reflecting on the ways transportation affects our daily lives in obvious and not-so-obvious ways, and the extent to which the triumphs and tribulations of highways, streets, railways, parking lots, and bike lanes become an often-overlooked undercurrent to our daily lives. A bad commute can ruin our morning; an unexpectedly easy trip can feel like an injection of bliss in the day.

To rephrase John Lennon — forgive me! — transportation is what happens to you while you're busy getting to your other plans.

So that brings me to some bittersweet news: This week will be my last installment of Starts & Stops. Starting next month, I'll be headed on a Fulbright fellowship to Trinidad and Tobago, where I will be writing about (what else?) transportation, traffic, congestion, public transit, and parking.

It's been a real treat interacting with readers in this space and being able to answer at least a modest number of the many (many!) e-mails sent from passionate commuters who are intimately familiar with the ups and downs of the state's myriad transportation networks. I wasn't able to respond to everyone, but I always enjoyed reading those missives and learned so much from the experiences of commuters' collective eons spent on the roads and rails. I hope I was able to share some of that knowledge and insight.


In coming weeks, another Globe reporter will be appearing in this space to carry on the Starts & Stops tradition. I have a feeling she won't have any shortage of knowledge, input, and suggestions from readers.

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