Op-Ed: Grand Junction Proposal Bad for Cambridge and Somerville

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) has proposed a new transportation project that is drastic, unnecessary, and should it be implemented, will hurt the cities of Cambridge and Somerville.

The Grand Junction Railroad, an 8.5 mile-long stretch of rail that runs through Cambridgeport, Kendall Square, East Cambridge, and the Brickbottom area of Somerville, was purchased from CSX by MassDOT roughly one year ago. Just months after purchasing the track as a part of a much larger deal with CSX, MassDOT began studying a proposal that would bring as many as 24 Commuter Rail trains per day through Cambridge and Somerville, with the goal of allowing passengers to ride the Worcester line directly to and from North Station. 

Grand Junction intersects six different roadways in Cambridge and Somerville at street-level: Mass Ave, Broadway, Main Street, Binney Street, Cambridge Street, and Medford Street. The rush-hour congestion on these streets will only be made worse when cars, bicycles, and pedestrians are forced to yield to rush-hour train traffic. Air quality will be degraded by idling cars and diesel exhaust from the trains themselves, and noise and vibrations will relentlessly bombard the thousands who live and work near the railroad. 

MassDOT’s proposal would also deal a major blow to those who wish to see Grand Junction become a useful space for our communities. Open space opportunities in Cambridge and Somerville are rare, and the Grand Junction Rail Trail concept offers a unique chance to connect residents to open space.  A multi-use path would connect existing parks and public facilities throughout the corridor and act as an urban necklace, connecting densely populated neighborhoods to open space; however, instead of benefitting and building our communities, the state’s proposal would erode the quality of life in Cambridge and Somerville. 

Beyond the impact to Cambridge and Somerville residents, the proposed project fails to fulfill any significant public need.  The Worcester Line is currently operating within its capacity, and the 8% of riders along the line with a final destination near North Station can already easily access the area via the Orange Line from Back Bay Station.     

While many residents have joined me in vocal opposition to this misguided proposal, some City Councillors have suggested that we are powerless to stop it from happening and that Cambridge should simply seek mitigation.  This is naive and irresponsible.  It is our duty as elected officials to do everything in our ability to fight on behalf of the people who we represent, and stepping aside to let this destructive proposal move forward unopposed would be an abandonment of that duty. 

The history of another destructive transportation proposal illustrates the importance of unified community opposition and the potential dangers of inaction and defeatism.
In 1948, the Massachusetts Department of Public Works proposed the construction of I-695, better known as the Inner Belt Expressway. The Inner Belt was designed to route traffic around downtown Boston and alleviate congestion on the city’s maze of historic roadways, a popular solution in a time when highways seemed to spring up out of the ground like weeds.

In order to construct the Inner Belt, 7,000 residents of Somerville, Cambridge, Roxbury and the South End would have to be displaced. Those who were not forced to move from their homes and chose to remain would live in neighborhoods that were irreparably scarred and forever changed. Instead of being connected by a natural web of streets and sidewalks, friends, neighbors, and whole communities of people would be divided by a massive six-lane highway. The route of the Inner Belt would have effectively amputated East Cambridge from the rest of the city, and Area IV and Cambridgeport would have been torn in two. Elm Street and Brookline Street would have been entirely demolished.

When demolitions for the project began in the 1960s, however, a committed group of activists fought the project tooth and nail, and in 1971, after years of intense community protest, the Inner Belt project was officially cancelled.

Among those who formed neighborhood groups in response to the Inner Belt project were a group of young professionals who called themselves the “ad hoc committee on the Inner Belt.” Their philosophy was that because the project was “inevitable,” it would be in the city’s best interests to work with the state rather than outright oppose the project. Fortunately, the City Council of the day rejected this approach and opposed the Inner Belt.  Yet we are left with a haunting question: what would have happened if they had adopted the ad hoc committee’s suggestions?

Like the Inner Belt before it, Grand Junction is a project that deserves united and unapologetic opposition. And like the Inner Belt before it, there are some who believe that we are powerless to stop this project from happening.

As a whole, the City Council has so far failed to articulate its opposition to MassDOT’s proposal with the same strength and clarity that the residents of Cambridge have. Some City Councillors have echoed the sentiment of the ad hoc committee of the 1960s, and would even go as far as to suggest that the city is better off begging for mitigation than putting up a real fight. This is the wrong approach to an idea that is as reckless and unneeded as a highway running through the heart of our city. MassDOT’s Grand Junction proposal will almost certainly erode the quality of life in our neighborhoods, and as a representative of those neighborhoods, I see little room for compromise. 

Despite the rapid progress of MassDOT’s proposal over the past year, I am hopeful that the project can be stopped. If we are divided in our opposition, however, we will almost certainly fail.  The lessons of the past have taught us that if we are to have any chance at changing the state’s mind about Grand Junction, Cambridge residents and elected officials must speak out against it in one voice.

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