Boston Transportation Department Officials Outline Planned Projects at South End Forum

Boston Transportation Department (BTD) officials were on hand for a virtual South End Forum meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 9, to discuss several transportation projects planned for around the area, including the proposed Berkley Street bike lane, along with the Tremont Street and Columbus Avenue projects, respectively.

Stefanie Seskin, a BTD transportation planner, outlined the city’s plan to add a separated bike lane on Berkley Street between Tremont and Beacon streets, which would connect to a new two-way bike lane on Beacon Street to bring bicyclists to the Esplanade  and the Charles River via the Arthur Fiedler Footbridge. About 34 parking spaces will be removed from Berkeley Street to accommodate the proposed bike lane, city officials previously said, but the BTD will also be changing just over 100 metered parking to resident parking, with another approximately 60 existing meter spaces to be converted to resident-only spaces after 6 p.m., resulting in a net positive increase in parking for Back Bay residents.

Regarding the city’s decision to pursue the installation of a bike lane on Berkeley Street rather than elsewhere, Seskin cited the long history of serious crashes on Berkeley Street while pointing out that Dartmouth Street, which has been suggested by some as an alternate location for the bike lane, is narrower than Berkeley Street and only has parking on one side of the street.

The site of the proposed Berkeley Street bike lane can be viewed in three sections, including between Beacon and Boylston streets, where there’s room for a bike lane while keeping with the same number of general lanes by removing parking on one side of the street; north of Columbus Avenue, where all existing general traffic lanes will be retained; and south of Columbus Avenue, where a bike lane could be added while making crosswalks safer and still accommodate traffic in two remaining lanes, said Seskin.

In implementing the project, signals will be retimed to allow pedestrians more time to traverse crosswalks on Berkley Street, she said, while turn lanes would be added at busy cross-streets to keep people moving at intersections, including northbound to and from Columbus Avenue; northbound onto St. James Street; and right onto Boylston Street.

Park regulations will also be updated to include 15-minute parking areas at high-turnover locations in response to double-parking, added Seskin.

Also,  a left-turn-only bus lane would be created on the block between Stuart and St. James streets – the stretch where riders have experienced the longest delays, she said.

A new left-turn lane would be introduced going from Columbus Avenue northbound to Boylston Street, said Seskin, although four metered parking spaces on Columbus Avenue near the parking lot would need to be eliminated to achieve this goal.

Separated bike lanes would be added between Clarendon and Arlington streets on the same stretch where pop-up bike lanes have been located over the past few years and in a nearly identical layout to them, added Seskin.

“We are trying to wrap this up because Public Works is finally planning to repave the stretch of Berkeley Street from Tremont Street to the [Fiedler Footbridge], so it would be great to implement something at the same time,” she said.

Seskin added that Tremont Street project would be concluding before or around the same time as the repaving of Berkeley Street, although she wasn’t entirely sure of the scheduling because the projects involved two different contractors.

Regarding the Tremont Street project, Seskin said  the contractor is continuing to work through detailed work at intersections and also to address underground utility issues.

Traffic-signal timing will be readjusted intersection by intersection, she said, while the overlaying process is expected to take several weeks to complete.

“We can’t commit to anything earlier than November, but we’re optimistic about the project,” added Seskin.

The 100-percent design package is expected to wrap up soon, she said, while the project is expected to go out to bid before the end of the year. Construction would then likely begin next summer, she said.

“It’s not a big project – it’s a few blocks,” added Seskin. “It’s not a multi-season project.”

In another matter, the city launched its multi-phase Connect Boston project in the fall of 2019, with Columbus Avenue identified as one of the “focus corridors,” said Louisa Gag, a BTD transportation planner.

Columbus Avenue varies in width between Massachusetts Avenue and Arlington Street from 52 to 64 feet, said Gag, while  bike lanes range from 4-5 feet wide to non-existent, and the median spans from 5 to 7 feet wide. The street is narrower where there are curb extensions, she added.

As part of the planned Columbus Avenue project, 72 non-compliant ramps will be redesigned to meet accessibility needs, and the street will be resurfaced, said Gag, but the city has made no further decisions about work on Columbus Avenue between Massachusetts Avenue and Clarendon Street.

The BTD is now comparing the results of its June 2023 parking study to findings from its 2019 parking study, she said, and will also collect updated traffic counts this fall. BTD officials will also continue to engage the community on design options, including raised sidewalks on side streets; signal changes;  and changes to curb regulations.

Design options are expected to be unveiled later this year, added Gag.

Moreover, Seskin said Columbus Avenue wouldn’t be resurfaced until the end of the next construction season, with next summer being the earliest the project would commence.

“We will not resurface Columbus until we have accessible ramp designs for every intersection,” added Seskin. “We’re trying to be really intentional about it – it’s just taking a lot of time. The reality is we have to rebuild a lot of ramps in the city, and that takes a lot of time.”

Steve Fox, chair of South End Forum, expressed deep concern regarding this proposed timeframe.

“We need to find a workaround to the timeframe that has been established,” he said. “We cannot watch another year of deterioration on Columbus Avenue, and we need to put our heads together to figure out what we can do.”

Seskin responded that since the repaving relies on federal funds, the timeline for this work can’t be accelerated.

Additionally, Fox suggested that the city not move ahead with the redesign of Columbus Avenue until after it has had ample time to evaluate Tremont Street “in a workable fashion.”

Fox also requested that the city schedule a community meeting focusing just on the Columbus Avenue project “to share data and opinions”; Gag replied she’d be happy to return to speak to the group again on this topic.

Rep. John Moran asked who the stakeholders for this project are and if businesses have been actively engaged in the process; Gag replied that the city had engaged key groups in “targeted outreach” and also went door to door to notify businesses of the project – something that’s planned again for the fall.

Meanwhile, the BTD is also proposing the installation of a separated bike lane on Albany Street between Northampton Street and Union Park, along with new crosswalks, where desired, as well as changing curb regulations, where desired, said Gag, who added this project is still in the early stages and hasn’t reached the design phase yet.

Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city’s    Chief of Streets, was also on hand for the virtual meeting and offered opening remarks.

“Every day, we’re working to maintain the infrastructure that we have to provide the core city street services that  people rely on, like street sweeping and parking enforcement to trash collection,” he said in part. “At the same time, we’re charged with doing work that transforms ours streets, that makes them safer, that makes them more multi-modal.”

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