Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Big Dig Flame Out

In the pre-dawn blackness, the obvious peril of the flaming car on the one-lane entry ramp from Storrow Drive onto Route 93 North destroyed the normal pleasure of the belly lit Zakim Bridge in blue. It was another dramatic illustration of the fundamental impossibility of adequately expanding our existing highways.

Unless we want to pave over our urban suburban landscape, the current model of more of the same does not serve us. President Eisenhower's administration went a long way toward meeting transportation needs of 1950s Americans with the Interstate Highway System. We need similar leadership to get beyond and over that concept.

Normally, before 5 a.m. climbing from Storrow by the YOUR NAME HERE GARDEN, the bridge in blue was startling and understated gorgeous. Then shooting down and then up to 93 like a Hot Wheels toy was always a little disconcerting. It was hard not to wonder what if...there was a wreck...another molasses flood (never get that high)...or a gasoline powered car in flames. Wowzers.

We've had more wrecks there, two recently dropping from above that paralyzed traffic. Just yesterday, a semi wrecked cars above and then tumbled down on one of these connector ramps, crushing an SUV and stopping flow for hours.

The newly redesigned and built-from-scratch Big Dig component was terrifyingly shortsighted. Down from or up to the interstate highway, a single lane perhaps a mile long could fill with traffic and easily trap the drivers and passengers. This is modern design?

We saw it in another way in December 2003. One of the first days that the Southeast Expressway opened, it had was the Globe headlined "TRAFFIC NIGHTMARE ON I-93." It wasn't an earthquake or even all the large animals from the Franklin Park Zoo filling the road. Instead a single gravel truck spilled its load at 1 p.m. and the highway closed. Well into the night, traffic that could escaped to tiny side roads or idled along below measurable speeds.

The Transportation Department claims to have "improved mobility in notoriously congested downtown Boston." That is only modestly accurate and at many times of the day, 93 is totally inadequate and traffic is motionless.

Remember the many billions that gave us only this incremental improvement. The problem was not in how they implemented it, rather that they aimed to tweak an unworkable model.

Back then when I lived in JP and worked in Burlington, I had lots of good reasons to leave home at 4:30 a.m. Our software company co-developed with offices in Israel and Russia, seven and eight hours ahead of us. The head of the GUI team came from New Hampshire and I ran docs. We could arrive, conduct overseas business, do our work without face or phone interruptions, and do our project management and our work together efficiently. We could also take an hour off to head to the FitCorp in the building for a workout and shower, and still be in the office before the rest of the company. Mostly though, I could get there in 26 minutes at 4:30 and might take 60 to 90 minutes at rush hour.

Only that one time, I passed a flaming vehicle, potential bomb on a no-escape road. That alone though was enough to reinforce the foolishness of our highway denial.

Today, I recalled that when the AAA maggy arrived with its "Bill of Rights for the Nation's Motorists on Transportation Funding." With Republicans no longer in control of all three branches of the federal government, the automobile and drivers lobbies much be hustling.

We can look at our multi-billion-dollar Big Dig. Around the nation, it has the reputation as wasteful and fraud ridden. Here, we see that after a decade, it hasn't helped traffic flow through town appreciably faster. It is an underground version of the same broken model.

Even though we know they are patches that will break, we do bigger roads because we understand them. We spend on more of the same. Perhaps a lane or two wider, but it is still too often too many cars in too little space. Short a pandemic, this invariably worsens, and quickly.

Most drivers feel they have no alternative. Our intrastate, interstate and intercity mass transit are pathetic. All of western Europe can shame us with examples of the right way to do it. Frequent, high-speed, inexpensive trains whisk folk to work and vacation, between cities and rural areas. Our pathetic efforts like the lame and badly overpriced Acela train running on WWII tracks inadequate for any meaningful speed are sad indeed.

To get a workable solution, we'd have to spend much more on rail systems and much less on highways. We must, and sooner will be better than later or never.

If we do the former with rail, we end up in a civilized, clean, healthy and cost-effective country. The latter is more of the same -- wasted transit time and human hours, pollution, deaths and maiming from wrecks, noise, and draining the public coffers and our taxes to pay for highways, like the Big Dig, that are inadequate for their purpose before they are open.

The amusing and shocking angle to that AAA policy article is that there is zero thought to alternatives. There is no mass transit to ease the traffic, just more of how can we make sure we keep building more and wider roads, and being sure that every dollar a motorist pays goes for the same. This is kind of like tackling drug crimes by trying to make sure the junkies only steal from other poor people.

Reckoning is upon us. The highway future looks much the same as the present and recent past. It will reek of petroleum fumes and cost trillions of dollars worth of hours, limbs, lives, and twisted vehicles. It is the ongoing war on our shores that we silently subsidize.

Sadly enough, even the auto lobby's threat that spending on mass transit will destroy the car biz here, costing millions of jobs, no longer as meaning. The big car makers have failed so miserably that they have ruined their industry solo. We'd be far better off as a nation building only fuel efficient small cars and retraining our auto workers into their new lives in mass transit.

We have seen and driven the Big Dig -- it was wholly inadequate. That does not so much damn that project as the whole concept of trying to "improve" highways. Spend hour upon hour in any major metropolitan area -- D.C., L.A., New York and Chicago are all apt -- and see that the same is true. The old highway model is so 20th Century.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Big Dig is "bad" for having a one-lane ramp; yet you can only advocate rail which is intrinsically one lane.

Better yet would be wider highways with wider ramps to allow traffic to go around a stalled vehicle.