MassDOT has formally revealed its intention to delay construction of the new West Station in Allston, frustrating hopes for the rapid introduction of additional commuting options from congested Allston, Brighton and Brookline.
The announcement indirectly lowers expectations for new options from other close-in communities abutting rail lines like Watertown and Belmont.
The announcement came at a contentious meeting of the task force working with MassDOT on the Allston I-90 project. Local and regional transit advocates have been pushing through dozens of sessions of that group for a bold transformation of transportation infrastructure.
The physical scope of the I-90 project is limited to the highway viaduct in Allston and the Allston-Brighton ramp system and its immediate surrounding streets. It is an exciting project even just within that scope.
Although limited in scope, the I-90 project was originally announced by the Patrick administration in the context of a thrilling vision for the use of existing rail corridors to create new mass transit routes.
The idea was to purchase new vehicles that are self-propelled like subway cars but can run on the heavy rail that commuter trains run on. These vehicles could provide frequent, subway-like service on abandoned lines, for example on the Grand Junction line that slinks under the BU bridge. The Grand Junction line could connect a new West Station in Allston to Kendall Square and North Station.
The new vehicles could also be deployed on existing rail corridors to fill-in the sparse commuter rail schedule in the close-in stations. That was the vision for the Worcester line passing through West station. The Worcester line, like the other commuter rail lines, offers very limited rush-hour service. Additional short-hop trains could support local commuting.
Sadly, the consensus among MassDOT planners about the new service appears to have shifted. The technical and logistical challenges of making the new service work have loomed much larger – it is no longer perceived as straightforward for local trains to share tracks with through trains.
Additionally, funding constraints have influenced thinking about the new service. The Patrick administration built its transportation vision on the hope of a much greater funding stream for transportation investment.
The legislature scaled back Governor Patrick’s proposed income tax increase that would support transportation and education, replacing it with a gas tax increase. Then the people, at the ballot, further scaled back the legislature’s gas tax increase. Governor Baker has generally opposed increasing taxes, effectively taking them off the table as a strategy.
A third factor is the recognition by the Baker administration, after the MBTA snow crisis that led to the departure of General Manager Beverly Scott, that it needs to focus very hard on making the service we have work. That is about management but also about huge investments in replacing aging trains, tracks and signal components that are entirely unreliable.
The technical challenges, the funding constraints and the focus on fixing existing assets have combined to move transformational investments further out on the planning horizon. That is the vision-shift that surfaced at the meeting last Thursday in the form of postponing the West station.
It is absolutely fair to question the vision-shift, but it comes from the conversations at the MassDOT board level, not from the project team working within the physical and conceptual box of the I-90 project.
There is another conversation above the MassDOT board: The legislature recently approved a ballot question for October 2018 that will propose on increase of the income tax on very high earners to provide $2 billion annually for transportation and education. Those funds would make a huge difference.
At their joint meeting on December 11, the MassDOT Board and the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board will review the transit aspects of the I-90 project. This should be a good opportunity to get an understanding of the thinking of the decision-makers on the West Station time line.
See schedule here.
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