Driven Mad

October 20, 2006
By

JOHN RUCH

Intersections spook neighbors
ARBORETUM AREA—Two crash-prone intersections between Arnold Arboretum and Hebrew Rehabilitation Center are leaving drivers and pedestrians confused and concerned. Illegal parking by arboretum visitors and Hebrew Rehab employees further chokes the area.

One intersection—Bussey and Walter streets—was slated to be fixed late this week, after Officer Mike Santry of Jamaica Plain’s E-13 Police Station ordered a city review in response to Gazette questions.

However, the Centre and Walter streets intersection, a maze of criss-crossing traffic, is considered the bigger villain. The Longfellow Area Neigh-borhood Association (LANA) recently renewed its call for a redesign. The Gazette observed two near-accidents there within an hour on a recent after-noon.

“When you drive into it, there’s no rhyme or reason to the intersection,” said state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez, who helped pass a funding bill for a redesign that the governor has yet to authorize. “It’s a nasty, nasty intersection.”

The Bussey/Walter intersection drew complaints for its virtually invisible, granite-curbed traffic island. One Roslindale resident told the Gazette he recently had a major accident when his car rammed into that island in the dark.

“The order has gone out. They’re removing it ASAP,” Santry said of the island this week.

Meanwhile, dozens of cars can be found illegally parked on sidewalks and over curbs during the day along Walter and Bussey. Arboretum and Hebrew Rehab officials told the Gazette they’re not happy about the situation, but can do little to stop it. Santry said the city’s hands are tied as well.

Pedestrians have nowhere safe to go in the Centre/Walter area, which totally lacks crosswalks and even sidewalks in some spots.

Asked about both intersections and the parking issues, arboretum Director Bob Cook said in an e-mail to the Gazette, “I care very much about all of the concerns you raise and I have raised such concerns in the past with city officials. The arboretum has no implementation or enforcement power when it comes to traffic and parking issues. I think such concerns raised by citizens are more effective in getting action.”

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which controls that part of Centre, and the Boston Transportation Department (BTD), which controls the other streets, did not return Gazette phone calls for this article. However, BTD and the Department of Public Works were involved in the recent fixes, Santry said.

The area straddles police districts E-13 and E-5. Santry chose to take charge of a review when police headquarters directed Gazette questions to him.

Centre/Walter
In the Centre/Walter stretch, Centre is two lanes in both directions separated by a large median strip. Walter intersects with it in the form of a wide fork with a triangular traffic island. The Centre median has two cuts through it for traffic turning to and from Walter. Drivers on Walter who want to go outbound on Centre have to drive across two lanes of traffic, enter a turn cut, and then enter the traffic flow on Centre. There are no traffic lights.

When illegal U-turns are factored in, the set-up looks something like a near-rotary. Even for someone standing still at the side of the road, it can take a few minutes to figure out how the traffic is supposed to flow. One of the cuts has a sign saying, “Make Turn Here” right under a sign banning U-turns.

Traffic on Centre is high-volume and much of it travels well above the speed limit. Daytime traffic on Walter is also relatively high.

The turning cuts often jam up in a dangerous fashion. In the cut from Walter, cars often line up side-by-side or with the rear ends sticking out into Centre.

There’s a sort of turn lane entering the turn cut from Centre to Walter. Traffic often lines up in that lane, blocking cars trying to get through the other cut.

Meanwhile, other drivers randomly use either cut for illegal U-turns.

The vast majority of all vehicles—including two police cars observed by the Gazette—navigate the system without using turn signals.

The Gazette observed two near-misses on the afternoon of Oct. 10. In one case, a car traveling toward Jamaica Plain on Centre had to swerve at full speed around the rear end of a car sticking out of one of the cuts. In the other case, a car trying to cross Centre from Walter to the turn cut moved too slowly right in front of oncoming traffic.

Besides its layout problems, the intersection is loaded with major, traffic-heavy institutions, including the arboretum, Hebrew Rehab, Trinity Lutheran Church and the Sophia Snow House senior home. A total of five driveways from these institutions feed directly into the intersection area. Just down Centre Street is a gas station and the Boston Center for Rehabilitative and Subacute Care. MBTA buses also stop in front of the church without any special pull-over space.

The intersection has no provisions for pedestrians.
That end of Walter has only small, disconnected bits of sidewalk. The Centre Street sidewalk in front of Hebrew Rehab ends at Walter, with a curb cut and ramp for wheelchairs. But the ramp simply points straight out into Centre, where no one could cross in a wheelchair safely, if at all.

The Gazette observed several pedestrians cross Walter by going down to a spot where it is narrower, strolling out from between parked cars and walking on Hebrew Rehab’s lawn in lieu of a sidewalk. One pedestrian crossed Centre from Sophia Snow House just by dashing across, using the median strip as a safe harbor.

“That’s definitely an area of concern for us,” said Rob Devlin’s Hebrew Rehab’s director of security and safety, about the intersection. He said employees frequently get trapped in traffic inside the median cuts.

LANA has been pushing for an intersection redesign since at least 2004 and renewed the call to arms in its September newsletter under the headline, “Dangerous Intersection Ignored By State.” LANA President Wayne Beitler did not return a Gazette phone call for this article, and neither did the local Jamaica Hills Association.

But, Sánchez said, he’s heard the message loud and clear, and issued a press release repeating his concerns after the Gazette asked him about the issue.

Last year, Sánchez and state Sen. Marian Walsh helmed a bond authorization of more than $1 million to fix the intersection, which passed in the Legislature but has languished in the executive branch.

“DCR doesn’t feel like it’s a priority,” Sánchez said.

He acknowledged it’s a complex situation, because altering traffic there likely would affect the entire system down the Arborway, Jamaicaway and even the Riverway. More immediately, the intersection is very close to the intersection with the VFW Parkway. Devlin said that major intersection—which also includes Hebrew Rehab’s main entrances—worries him even more, with cars regularly running lights and a crosswalk there.

Sánchez said the intersection is part of the issues he raised in recent Jamaica Plain meetings with DCR officials, including Commissioner Stephen Burrington. Those meetings including Burrington touring much of the area to see it first-hand, and resulted in some minor improvements on the Arborway and Jamaicaway.

Sánchez said he is asking DCR officials to come to the neighborhood for a follow-up meeting in about a month, and expects to discuss the Centre/Walter intersection at that time.

Santry, who is the auto investigator for the E-13 police, noted that most of the intersection is the jurisdiction of State Police. But, he said, he was not happy to see the lack of sidewalks and what he said appears to be the illegal narrowness of the bits that remain.

“Nothing down here to me looks legal,” he said, after examining the Walter Street area.

Walter/Bussey
Where Bussey meets Walter, it was long divided by a small, granite-rimmed traffic island that had no sign, reflector or paint on it.

Roslindale resident Jeff Chasin told the Gazette he rammed into the island in August while turning from Walter onto Bussey in the dark. He said he could not see the island until the last second.

“I hit it at probably 25 or 30 miles an hour,” Chasin said. “It made mincemeat of my left front wheel and suspension.” He lost control of the car, crossed Bussey and crashed into the arboretum’s stone wall.

He said the accident did more than $5,000 in damage to his car—money his insurance company is seeking to collect from the city.

Chasin said someone later put a traffic cone on the island to make it visible. But that was gone at the time of the Gazette’s visit.

Santry said the island used to have a sign on it that was presumably knocked down in a previous accident. He said he ordered a city review of the intersection, which led to the order for the island’s removal.

Devlin said the intersection isn’t of much concern to Hebrew Rehab, though he added, “I have seen a few near-misses” there.

There is a similar unmarked island on the other end of Bussey, at the South Street intersection. During the Gazette’s drive through the area, that island was almost completely hidden by fallen leaves. Santry said that island will eventually be removed as well, also in response to Gazette questions.

Illegal parking
During the Gazette’s visit to the area, there were 14 cars parked on sidewalks or over curbs along that section of Walter Street, which is illegal and further cuts off pedestrian access through the area. Eight of the cars had Hebrew Rehab parking permits hanging from their rear-view mirrors.

At least a dozen other cars were illegally parked on Bussey Street sidewalks around the two arboretum entrances there. In some of the cars, drivers sat reading newspapers.

A small arboretum parking area on Walter was full. In what may or may not have been official parking places in that area, there were two cars with Hebrew Rehab parking permits.

Cook indicated that Hebrew Rehab employees shouldn’t be parking there, and that arboretum visitors shouldn’t be parking on sidewalks.

Devlin acknowledged that illegal parking by Hebrew Rehab employees is a problem, adding that the institution doesn’t have enough parking. It is now also using the Annunciation church lot on the VFW Parkway.

“We try to discourage it as best we can,” Devlin said of the illegal parking. “Unfortunately, our jurisdiction ends with the property.”

Asked whether parking on sidewalks and over curbs is inherently illegal, Santry said, “It is and it isn’t…You go on the past practice.” By that, he meant it is indeed illegal, but people are so used to it now that they would complain if the law was strictly enforced without warning.

“I don’t want somebody going into the arboretum to walk their dog coming out and finding a $75 ticket,” he said.

Santry noted that there are no no-parking signs anywhere on Walter or Bussey. But, he said, they can’t post any because parking isn’t legal there anyway, creating a catch-22 situation.

On Bussey, the curb is a low ramp of cobblestones that is “making it more or less friendly for people” to park on the sidewalk, Santry said. He noted that the city has an ongoing policy of removing cobblestone street edgings and replacing them with granite curbs, so that may be coming to Bussey.

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