Upham's Corner Online

Save the Casey Overpass and Preserve the Sense of Village

From the Editor’s Desk – the Casey Overpass

The Casey Overpass has been in the design stages for at least 1.5 years and a design has been selected.  The train is moving down the tracks and is unlikely to change direction.  That doesn’t mean that alternative ideas aren’t still important to put out onto the table.

This editorial takes a position out-of-step with the current decision to build a ground level replacement.  Some of the benefits of replacing the Casey Overpass with a modern version are worth considering - to wit, this editorial.

MassDOT in Charge of Casey Project

The Casey Arborway project is under the auspices of MassDOT, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.  Officially known as the Monsignor William J. Casey Overpass, it is the elevated section of Route 203 at the Forest Hills MBTA station. 

According to MassDOT, “The overpass is structurally deficient and suffers from numerous superstructure and substructure problems due to a combination of deterioration and flaws in the original design.  … Funding is now available to … examine opportunities for an improved transportation network in and around this area.”

The next steps in the Casey Arborway Project process are two meetings on December 13, 2012 - a site visit at 3pm and a public meeting from 6pm to 9pm. 

MassDOT has filed an Environmental Notification Form for the Casey Arborway project with the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act Office. As part of the MEPA process, a site visit and public meeting will be held on:

Thursday, December 13, 2012
3pm – MEPA Site Visit
Meet at the north entrance of the Forest Hills MBTA Station

6pm-9pm – MEPA Public Meeting
Boston English High School - Auditorium
144 McBride Street, Jamaica Plain

Casey Overpass – a Sense of Nostalgia

On Tuesday, Dec 11 at an Uphams Corner Public Works meeting, an avid bicyclist (MassBike),  who wished to remain anonymous, spoke matter-of-factly about the Casey Overpass ‘issue.’

“My only complaint,” he said, “is that the bicycle path ends unsafely. It was built a long time ago when there was an orange line and that's why the structure is so large. Replace it? It has to be replaced. But if it's rebuilt, it could be made a lot smaller but that will be expensive because it has to be built in parallel with the existing structure. The ground-level design? Obviously, it’s the cheaper alternative.”

This author has lived in Boston for over 30 years, at one time in Jamaica Plain and now in Uphams Corner.  The Casey Overpass has always been an integral part of my transportation life though I never knew it by name. It served as the “rapid transit” access road from the Jamaica Way to Washington Street and on down to the “White City” section of JP. 

After moving to Dorchester, I continued to go “the back way.”  Exiting Rte 1 at Park Street and idling my way through the crowded roads of the Fens and Roxbury was shorter in miles but much longer in frustration.  I loved how I could extend the feel of the Jamaica Way almost all the way home by using Rte 203 through Franklin Park and out to Columbia Rd.

In the earliest days of my life in Massachusetts, I lived in Norwood and on occasion took a bus from Norwood to downtown Boston that traveled along the Orange Line.  Bus passengers slept or read or stared through the windows at the decrepit conditions along the Orange Line and gazed at unfathomable living conditions. 

All of that has changed.  Boston’s Southwest Corridor is now yuppy-ville and bicycles, parks, walking, green spaces and “the good life” dominates thinking and decision-making (not necessarily reality).

The world is changing, fast becoming localized with an emphasis on locally grown, locally bought and locally accessed through lower carbon footprint modes of transportation.

As much as Boston’s roads will forever remain local in their feel, structure and apparent intent on remaining hidden as major crossroads, there are several thruways that landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted blessed us with that make life in our automobiles tolerable and that provide an open window to new opportunities.  The Jamaica Way is an artery that, although somewhat challenging, provides access to worlds that are different from “home.” 

I remember the years of weekly trips taking my two boys from the crime ridden streets of Uphams Corner down to the Dedham Mall where an ice cream cone was always waiting for us.  I had a car, and I used the Casey Overpass after coursing down Columbia Rd and through Franklin Park.

Our family traveled within Boston and out to the suburbs regularly.  The youth I met recently in Dorchester said she had never been to Roxbury, had never left the town of Dorchester (age 16).  She couldn’t even imagine what it was like to leave there.

Cautions on Making Choices

At the Tuesday meeting on infrastructure changes in Uphams Corner, another biking enthusiast (there were many) spoke in glowing technical terms about the health advantages of biking over walking (which she said is barely better than sitting.  And sitting, she added, leads to early death!!). 

Others cautioned about locating the Hubway here because it takes up three parking spaces and Uphams Corner’s biggest threat to economic revitalization is NO PARKING. 

Still one more person spoke up.  “I am white but I am here to tell you that the people who live in Uphams Corner are poor, many of them single parents with young children.  They don’t ride bicycles.  They take the bus.” 

What ensued was a bit of a testy verbal foray.  You could see the lines being drawn in the sand or, more aptly stated, down the bike lanes as they pushed the automobiles ever closer to extinction.

One person who responded to the suggestion that “flowers” be put on the light poles in Uphams Corner or even at ground level in planters (fantasizing) verbalized a statement of reality.  “The flowers in front of my business have been stolen and the planters used as trash barrels.  We need,” he said, “to be realistic about our expectations.” 

Taking a Position on the Casey

Position statement:  The Casey Overpass should be replaced and rebuilt to maintain the sense of a village free of California like freeways and to serve all constituents of the population.

Let me tell you why. 

The term “village” has come to embody the image of a sustainable community with a picturesque shopping district, tightly knit with residences in close walking distance.  Traveling east on Rte 203 past the Arboretum, you, the driver, see the vision of the village come into focus as you approach the off-ramp going down to Washington Street.  Streets of dense residential housing lead from the main artery, and, on the other side of the Forest Hills station, the retail shops eagerly invite you to come in.

Happily what is missing from the image is a plethora of automobiles – six lanes deep that are forced to stop to honor two interchanges leading to either side of the Forest Hills station.  Why is the traffic missing?  Because the traffic that does not want to be in JP, the traffic that is on its way to somewhere else, is carried by the Casey Overpass out of view to places beyond. 

What exists at ground level today is what creates a sense of village at Forest Hills.  The “town” center is the Forest Hills T station - a lifeline to people without cars or, better still, to those who opt for public transportation.  Waiting for the bus is a communal exercise of barely moving until the bus rounds the bend and signals: “All aboard.” 

The Casey Overpass was built for a reason and, yes, it was built at a time when cars dominated thinking and decision-making.  Cars have not disappeared and are not about to.  While Mayor Menino has made his oft-quoted statement popular, “The car is no longer King,” neither has the bicycle taken over to wear the crown. 

The point here is to have a realistic understanding of today’s world, taking into account all members of the population while also planning for the changes to come.  Realism says that replacing the Casey Overpass with a six lane “highway” will destroy the sense of village available today, and it has the potential to add pollution and trash to the Forest Hills area.

A Study Looks at Bypass Roads

“Economic and Travel Impacts of Bypass Roads: A Comparative Study of Israel and the U.S.” by Pnina O. Plaut and Elizabeth Deakin” http://www.uctc.net/research/papers/791.pdf

This study provides real case studies of the impact of bypass roads on communities.  In almost all cases, the movement of traffic away from the town center benefits the community.  The counter arguments that (1) bringing (forcing) cars to pass through a community will cause them to want to stop or (2) a bypass road will attract construction away from the town are not borne out, at least not here in JP. 

Cars that are on their way from Dorchester, for example, to the Jamaica Way do not want to be at ground level in JP.  There is simply no need for them to have to come to multiple stops in that area for “no apparent reason.”  The threat of competitive businesses drawing customers away from Forest Hills because of the bypass is also non-existent.  Yes, people will continue to cling to the possibility that cars driving through Forest Hills might wonder what lies up South Street or down Hyde Park Ave.  What the study found is that a reduction in congestion often helps attract businesses. 

Consider the model of Uphams Corner which is regarded as a town that travelers quickly pass through on their way to somewhere else.  The intersection of Columbia Rd and Dudley Street is so “hateful” that many travelers (cars and trucks) know to turn right onto Bird Street and cut through Monadnock Street to avoid that heinous intersection.  Travelers would be forever grateful if the traffic lights were always green, if the speed limit were higher and if the traffic flowed freely – what the Casey Overpass provides. 

Cars are here to stay for decades to come, maybe for as many years as the Casey has already existed.  As long as the Casey is designed to support generations of upgrades in transportation options, the reduction in car usage could be offset by the introduction of other vehicles of the future.

Concluding Remarks

In summary, it is still possible to design an overpass that provides vehicular bypass functionality, that removes unwanted cars from “the village” and yet gives access to local amenities. 

Remember this:  The Casey Overpass was not just built for Jamaica Plain.  The Mass.gov website describes the Casey as “an important connection to such Boston institutions as Franklin Park, Forest Hills Cemetery, Shattuck Hospital, and the Arnold Arboretum, among others.”

This description seems to forget THERE IS LIFE beyond the immediate boundaries of Jamaica Plain. What happened to Mattapan and Dorchester?  Route 203 heading east and turning into Morton Street and Gallivan Blvd has lots of different colors and socio-economic classes, different family structures and educational levels, different ethnicities. 

This brings up the question of inclusiveness.

The Uphams Corner meeting quickly divided some members of the room into two camps - the haves and the have nots (bicycles).  The voices became testy, defensive and accusatory.

On top of that, many of the people in that room representing the bicycle wave were NOT from Uphams Corner.  They were interlopers hoping to promote their cause without having any comprehension of the so-called "challenges (and there are many)" present to all facets of the Uphams Corner community.

What does this have to do with JP? 

We are placing an emphasis on the inclusiveness and intimacy that a village-like setting provides and we are placing a strong emphasis on SERVING all members of the population.  Has the solution agreed to by so many been matched up against the needs of all?

Just checking.


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Posted: December 13, 2012     Nancy J Conrad

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