4 minute read

Reimagining Route 18

By Steven Froias

When it was completed in the early 1980s, The Standard-Times immortalized Route 18’s terminus at Cove Street with the headline, “Highway to Nowhere?”

Partially designed to alleviate the traffic that clogged South End streets at quitting time, many of the mills and manufacturers in that area of New Bedford had shuttered or substantially reduced their workforce by the time work was completed. The traffic problem had largely “solved” itself.

In the decades since then, Route 18 has been a roadway of derision in the city. Many regard it as a scar across the landscape which separated it from the waterfront, destroyed the fabric of community and literally ran over too much of New Bedford’s architectural heritage in the process of its creation.

And that’s largely been the perception of Route 18 ever since – an urban evil to be borne but never embraced.

Yet generations later, with a renewed focus on neighborhood health throughout the city, a nascent wind-energy industry centered just off the highway at the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, and a still-thriving fishing industry for which transportation is critical, is it time to finally love Route 18?

Building bridges

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) thinks so. In fact, they are in the process of gathering public input for a reimagining of the roadway from Elm Street north to Coggeshall Street. And, this follows some major improvements already accomplished south of that stretch of road. Consider this when thinking about Route 18 today:

The redesign at the foot of Union Street has worked. Balancing the needs of industry, recreation and tourism was no easy task. However, the redesign of Route 18 centered at the foot of Union Street and reaching down to Walnut Street and up to Elm Street has been a significant improvement. An abysmal situation has been made manageable for both vehicular and foot traffic. Is it perfect? Of course not. Then again, few such congested urban areas seldom are anywhere.

The pedestrian/cycling approach to the New Bedford-Fairhaven Bridge and Pope’s Island beyond has created a oneof-a-kind, quintessential urban space. It’s not unlike the Brooklyn Promenade across from lower Manhattan, built to accommodate Robert Moses’s Brooklyn- Queens Expressway. There’s something empowering for the pedestrian or cyclist to literally rise above the traffic on the highway below and make their way up to the bridge. Beautiful views of the city’s fishing fleet, historic harbor, and Fort Phoenix await. The Fairhaven bike path also beckons after crossing the bridge.

Lower Route 18 has been transformed into a true boulevard, and it’s an amazing transformation. Back where we began, where Route 18 becomes what’s now the John F. Kennedy Boulevard, MassDOT, in partnership with the City of New Bedford, has completed an overhaul of the roadway which finally addresses its original sin.

An ample new pedestrian and cycling path running right along the boulevard helps integrate it into the surrounding neighborhood, as do new means of egress and entry from nearby streets. Graceful lighting runs down the center and gives this stretch of pavement a touch of bling. Most of all, it finally helps connect rather than divide the city; a walk down Rte. 18 reveals just how close the downtown and South End actually are on the ground.

It’s the gateway to Acushnet Avenue and the North End. Building on that successful transformation is what the new project from Elm to Coggeshall is all about. In some ways, it’s a tougher task northbound because the roadway has more limited access up this way. Yet, there is just as much opportunity here as there was down south.

Speak up

MassDOT has held two meetings so far soliciting input from the community, and plan several more over the next months.

The goals of the corridor study are to identify ways to improve access and connectivity through the Route 18 corridor from Elm Street to Coggeshall Street. The study will identify improvements to address access, connectivity, and mobility challenges faced by all users of the corridor, including pedestrians, bicycles, transit, and motorists. It will consider access to the new South Coast Rail Station and economic development opportunities as well.

If you’d like to add your thoughts to the study underway, or participate in future online meetings, log on to mass.gov/new-bedford-route-18-corridor-study for more information.

Guided by the “urban renewal” policies of the time, bringing Route 18 to the South End of New Bedford disrupted a part of the city full of emotional infrastructure.

Eminent domain bulldozed through a residential, largely Cape Verdean, neighborhood. And, the final, faded remnant of the commercial corridor of Water Street was essentially obliterated during construction. To this day, the forlorn and empty Orpheum Theater sits abandoned by the roadside, the lone survivor of a once-thriving commercial center.

While that Standard-Times headline may have reflected the completion of Route 18 in the early ‘80s, it may turn out that it didn’t reflect the end of the road.

It may have taken quite a while to reach that destination, but many decades after the first asphalt was spread, it may finally be time to love Route 18 in New Bedford and rescue its reputation.