Boston's Central Artery Plan Praised, Booed

Complex road-tunnel project wins approval of one environmental group, but others say it still is simply too disruptive

BOSTON may be getting more mileage than it bargained for out of its $4.9 billion Central Artery project. Besides construction of a bigger, better highway system, the 10-year plan calls for a $1 billion effort to get excess vehicles off clogged city streets. The new mass-transit initiative includes the extension of railroad and subway lines, parking freezes, and the creation of more car-pool lanes on major roads.

The measures were included as part of the Central Artery construction plan after an unusual agreement was brokered last month between state transportation officials and the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), which formerly opposed, along with other environmental groups, the artery project. The CLF now supports the highway project.

``This is a model for highway planning in the future,'' says Stephen Burrington, CLF staff attorney. ``This could be seen as looking out from other [US] cities and making a statement of where we want to go'' in transportation policy.

Environmentalists say improving mass transit, instead of building bigger highways, is crucial to conserve energy, improve air quality, and preserve open land. About six cities have major construction of rapid-transit systems under way, says Kenneth Orski, president of Urban Mobility Corporation, a consulting agency in Washington, D.C.

Portland, Ore., started up a light-rail system a few years ago called MAX (Metropolitan Area Express), which takes passengers from downtown to areas east of the city. Now a western extension of the line is being planned. Last summer Los Angeles started up its ``blue line'' light-rail train that runs from downtown Long Beach to Los Angeles.

Highway projects in a number of cities are meeting tough resistance from conservation groups. In San Francisco, environmentalists filed suit in federal court against the city's Metropolitan Transportation Commission for not thoroughly analyzing federal air quality standards for highway projects. In a ruling last month a US district judge barred farther expansion of any Bay Area highways, halting three major projects.

``I think it's clear that the environmental community is going to see that public transportation is a key strategy in helping to address air quality, energy conservation, and the wise use of land,'' says Bruce Fried, executive director of Transit Now, a public transportation advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Turning that rhetoric into reality is not easy on the local level, as Boston's Central Artery experience bears out. While transportation officials applaud Boston on the new mass-transit agreement, local environmental groups are more cautious. Some say the CLF-state agreement is not enforceable.

``The language of the agreement is that the state will use its `best effort.' `Best effort' is very vague language. What does that mean?'' asks Robert Zimmerman, director of the Charles River Watershed Association, an environmental group.

Others wonder if the state will follow through on the CLF agreement, arranged in the last days of the administration of Gov. Michael Dukakis (D). Officials with the new administration of Gov. William Weld (R), wrestling with an estimated $1 billion budget deficit, say the agreement is still under review.

``The actual nuts and bolts of the agreement will be looked over,'' says Jordan St. John, an aide to Governor Weld. ``If this is a period of belt-tightening, it's going to be very difficult to consider.''

The Central Artery project, in the planning stages for more than a decade, would widen the artery and bury a portion of it underground, providing more ground-level space in the cramped downtown area. Included in the plan is a third tunnel under Boston Harbor. This would provide a direct connection with the Massachusetts Turnpike (part of Interstate 90) and Logan International Airport, as well as Boston's South Station rail terminal. Congress approved 90 percent federal funding for the project in April 1987.

Proponents say the new artery will improve traffic flow, help beautify the city, and create thousands of new jobs. But it has long been criticized by community and environment groups who say the noise, dust, and disruption will devastate city neighborhoods.

One portion of the highway plan, called the ``Scheme Z'' design, has been widely criticized. Scheme Z is a massive complex of wide roads and twisting ramps that would cross the Charles River north of downtown. Opponents say it is ugly and would use up park land. They would rather see that section buried underground.

The state Department of Environmental Affairs approved the entire construction project last month. Transportation officials hope to get approval from the Federal Highway Administration and Environmental Protection Agency in the coming months. Major construction is expected to start in the spring.

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