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COLUMN

Headache on the Horizon

Vivek Rao

As a result of security fears, poor planning, and unrealistic expectations, this July’s Democratic National Convention will saddle Boston with a traffic mess of epic proportions. With Interstate 93 and a number of other key roads closing during the late afternoon, more than 200,000 vehicles may be rerouted on each of the convention’s four days. Some experts suggest that gridlock could extend as far as New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

Yet as chaotic as the week of the convention promises to be, it remains a mere anomaly that should not detract from the major progress continuing to occur in the Greater Boston area. A number of fundamental improvements in the local transportation infrastructure should leave the city in better shape than ever to tackle the future, with less congested traffic, more green space, and lower pollution levels among the most important results of ongoing efforts.

A number of the most useful improvements have involved Logan Airport. While the Ted Williams Tunnel has been an unquestionably beautiful and functional connector to the airport ever since its construction was completed on time and within budget in 1995, it was underused for years, frequently restricted to commercial traffic while the Callahan and Sumner tunnels experienced their typically nightmarish backups. Since January 2003, however, with the extension of Interstate 90 in place, the tunnel has served as the final connection between the Pike and the airport, and more importantly, it has been open to all traffic. The results have been profound. Commuting time to the airport has decreased by over half from some parts of Greater Boston, while congestion in the other airport tunnels has been significantly alleviated. For longtime Bostonians, such successful infrastructure improvements seem as unbelievable as they are useful.

Still, as dramatically as access to Logan has improved over the last year or so, progress within the airport may be even more rapid. Massport, the organization that runs the airport, has initiated an extensive $4.4 billion improvement project called Logan Modernization. Already a two-tiered roadway system has been established within the airport, allowing smoother traffic flow and less curbside congestion. In addition, elevated walkways and additional parking facilities have addressed areas of need at Logan, while significant renovations and improvements inside Terminal E, the main international terminal, are underway. The work at Logan provides another example of local planners’ creative and functional approaches to infrastructure, approaches that have been all too rare in Boston in the past.

Arguably the most significant example of infrastructure improvement in Boston over the last few years has been the submersion of Interstate 93. For far too long, Boston’s Green Monster could have just as easily described the steel eyesore that carried I-93 through the heart of Boston as Fenway Park’s famed wall. Recently, though, the major commuter highway was rerouted underground. While this project may not solve the problem of intense traffic congestion that occurs every day on I-93, one could argue that nothing short of building an entirely new parallel highway would provide such a solution. What the submersion of I-93 does do, however, is open up a large amount of space that will allow for the creation of the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which will consist of three major parks centered in the North End, the Wharf District, and Chinatown, respectively. The establishment of this large green space will have numerous consequences, including improved aesthetics, lowered pollution, and a chance for community building. The potential benefits of the Greenway should have anyone staying in Boston drooling with anticipation.

At the end of the day, the Greenway is just one example of why perceptions of a tangled and incomprehensibly chaotic web of roadways and construction projects in Boston should give way to an appreciation of the fundamental improvement that has occurred within the last few years and that should continue in the foreseeable future. When those massive traffic jams arrive later this summer along with the convention, remember that while you may experience four days of hell, Boston could very well be in for four decades of bliss thanks to a series of well-designed, creative, and functional infrastructure improvements.