A Transit Disappointment

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.

Relevant MassDOT Board Meeting

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.

Upcoming Public Meetings on the I-90 Project

See schedule here.

For further discussion, please see this post.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

20 replies on “A Transit Disappointment”

  1. I assume that a congestion charge is still off the table, and I think that is a mistake. We need the money for the T, we need to improve transit so that people have options other than driving, and a charge for driving into Boston (and Cambridge?) at rush hour would discourage enough marginal drivers that traffic would flow more freely.

  2. Ahhhhhh new taxes just what we need. Maybe reducing spending and reducing taxes is what the public needs. There are so many taxes on everything in life it makes just getting by difficult

  3. Do you have a sense that the Baker admin’s approach to CO2 reduction, on the transportation side, is to rely almost 100% on people migrating from the cars they have now to electric cars (or else some harebrained ideas along the lines of Tom Keane’s advocacy piece for self driving cars in the Globe last week)?
    This it he impression I have. I see nothing in his press releases to suggest he thinks of Mass Transit as a solution to our emissions problem. I do see that the electric rate increase is in part to support grid updates in anticipation of electric cars.

    Have you looked closely yourself at electric cars as the solution? They’re remarkably efficient, however I wonder if the back of the envelope calculations being done are not done on too small of an envelope. E.g. there was a Technology Review article some time back suggesting their efficiencies go way down in cold weather. I’m also uncertain as to whether the assumption that electric cars (with single drivers) do better than not completely full diesel buses really holds up. Do these comparisons factor in the need to heat the inside of the car? (I’m not seeing these people who can’t submit themselves to taking public transit, walking or bicycling being willing to bundle up as they drive.) And of course the comparisons never consider giving the bus the same technology the car has.

    And then there’s the issue of how quickly electric cars can be rolled out. Let’s remember that the goal cannot be to get to a some somewhat lower emissions rate at some date, we’re not sure when, but must be to keep our cumulative emissions within the amount nature and fairness to developing nations allows for us. And also once we hit the higher global average temperature I gather that temperature will be locked in for a very long period (by human time scales). It’s not like we can realize our mistakes later and react then.

    I wonder if the electric car solution will be like the switch to natural gas. Something that gives a one time reduction in emissions (perhaps with some disagreement on the validity of the amount of reduction penciled in) but leaves no path forward after that to get us to zero or negative emissions, as we will need to do.

    Thanks for the info. It shows quite clearly what we are dealing with. For the time being it’s on us who are able bodied enough to find our own solutions by ourselves. And I guess we’ll have to pay close attention to see if the Democratic candidate for governor has any vision on this front.

  4. So upsetting when the amount invested in the planning and prep is lost. The pathetic system we have now is over capacity and maxed out. We must move ahead with sustainable transportation. Maybe with Elon Musk and electric cars, things will look differently – like maybe solar panels over the highways to fuel vehicles.

    1. Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking of electric cars as “zero emissions vehicles.” I’m not really clear on their impact, but a quick search trying to answer the question I posed to Senator Brownsberger suggests their improvement depends greatly (and puts high demand upon) on our ability to covert our ISO’s electricity mix to being more renewable:

      “Using coal powered electricity electric cars do nothing to cut emissions, using natural gas electricity they’re like a top hybrid and using low carbon power they result in less than half the total emissions of the best combustion vehicle, manufacturing included.”


      And let’s remember that our grid now is very dependent on natural (or fossil) gas and that hybrids don’t help hugely:

      “In practice, hybrid technologies seem to give fuel savings of 20 or 30%.”


      1. Oh, and your hope about solar panels used as the energy source think of this way: any feasible deployement of solar panels used to fuel (part of) a car is one feasible deployment you weren’t able to use to reduce use of natural gas.

  5. I will definitely be voting in 2018 for a tax on high earners for transportation and education!

  6. I would hope that MassDOTs decisions are purely a fiscal decision. If it is something else, there should be legislative remedies (replace the offending board members)

  7. Thank you, Will, for keeping us so well informed, even when the news is not what we’d like to hear.

  8. Will,
    Thank you for a cogent summary. However, the recent Globe article on this postponement featured a concern that you didn’t mention: Transit demand is uncertain. Harvard’s plans for its properties in the area were delayed by the 2008 crash. The future street network is as yet undetermined.

    This could be a “chicken and egg” problem. Lacking demand for transit there, it’s not reasonable to build transit there. Lacking transit, it’s not reasonable to build the housing and businesses and educational facilities that might use it. The way around that is to leave room for the transit, but it’s still hard to attract new uses without it.

    The Globe also pointed out that the viaduct, nearing the end of its life, needs to come down sooner than later. The same can’t be said of a new station.

    Much as I like the idea too, the concerns you mentioned are valid. Different types of vehicles, with different schedules and missions, running on the same rails, cause problems; witness the endless problems created by running commuter rail service on lines owned by freight companies (in Europe, there are separate rail lines for passenger and freight, ligher rail for lightweight, high-speed vehicles for passengers, and heavier rail for heavy, slower freight). Combining the functions of a local subway in Boston with a commuter rail out to Worcester will be problematic.

    Re your suggestion of self-propelled vehicles: Those are what existed from the 1950’s through 1974 on the former B&M line that ran from Cambridge through Arlington and Lexington to Bedford Depot (now the bike path). The vehicle’s top speed (which the tracks didn’t allow) was 84MPH. Passengers were heated and cooled as needed. The cars had control cabs at both ends and could simply reverse direction without having to turn around. The catch was that they were diesel, and I don’t know of any technology that makes electric rail cars self-propelled.

    These things take time. Last year, I finally threw out my 1985 (yes, 1985, pre-Big-Dig) study of 7 alternatives for extending the Green Line beyond Lechmere into Somerville. As you know, that’s still not built. We have limited funds. Even before the recent passage of a tax cut for the rich (and hikes for the rest of us), we were expecting a severe hit, from Trump’s cuts to the federal subsidies that make the Affordable Care Act work in Massachusetts. With that kind of budget hole, I don’t see how anyone can justify a new, large project. The viaduct will take time. Let’s get the Green Line extended first.

    Although I’m a lifelong Democrat, I agree with the assessment of Charlie Baker and others who are prioritizing the maintenance of what we now have operating every day over expansion. As a personal anecdote, the switches on the Red Line leading into Alewife Station still freeze during cold snaps, limiting service to one train set on one set of tracks between Alewife and and Harvard, and thus massive delays.

    I agree with you that an income surtax on high earners would be wonderful. Unfortunately, I also believe that if it passes, it will be successfully challenged as violating the Mass. Constitution’s prohibition on differential tax rates. I’d like to see the Mass. Constitution amended, after which we can create a progressive state tax, but that’s a whole separate battle.

    There is a larger issue of financial and social equity across the state. Massachusetts has long been, as the Dukakis administration documented in the early 1990s, one state with two economies – a booming economy around Boston, with lots of jobs and ridiculously high housing prices and everywhere else getting slower less successful as one goes further west. I taught in Springfield for 3 years and I can assure you that much of the state resents the lavish subsidies expended on the Boston area in much the same way that upstate New Yorkers resent the disproportionate flow of funds to New York City. One anecdote: GE moves to Boston and gets $150 million and state and local tax breaks. Springfield gets a vehicle assembly facility (owned by the Chinese, no less!) to assemble rail cars for Boston, and it gets an MGM casino.

    In that context, I question the equity and fairness of additional substantial investments in the Boston area. Beyond that, it has negative effects – excess crowding and traffic, high housing prices. Yes, there are investments in other areas, e.g. New Bedford as a center for offshore wind turbines, other investments around UMass Medical in Worcester. But those are in the millions and tens of millions, not hundreds of millions and billions.

    Finally, there is an even larger, looming issue. We have a certain amount of climate change and rising sea levels already baked in to our fossil fuel pie. Eventually, parts of Boston will be subject not only to flooding during heavy runs but, like parts of Florida, during sunny days. That includes much of what has been built in Boston’s Seaport District, and will probably include other low-lying areas.

    Now, THAT will cost billions.


    Aram Hollman

    1. Good points, Aram.

      Just a couple of note:

      The ballot question is a constitutional amendment, so if it passes, it will be constitutional.

      As to equity of additional Boston investment, remember that Boston also generates a disproportionate share of tax revenue.

  9. So provincial thinking
    Every man for himself will get stuck in traffic jams and pollute even with electric cars because of waiting in jams, not to talk about all the wasted productive time. How many $$$ is that??
    Sharing rails has been done for ever in Europe. Why should MA planners not be capable of devising safe and efficient file-sharing modes is beyond me.

  10. Went to this meeting tonight, but I left my phone off in case it rang so couldn’t take pictures of the links as others were doing:


    Anyone know the link to the actual DEIR pdf they said we should download and read?

    I don’t even know why I’m bothering. Sounds like the whole process is a bit of charade. You vote republican you get car infrastructure and only car infrastructure.

      1. (Sorry if I’m being annoying here).

        Would it make sense for me to upload my copy to archive.org, here: https://archive.org/details/USGovernmentDocuments&tab=about
        Or maybe to IPFS (the distributed file system Catalan separatists recently used to keep their writings public on the internet after the Spanish government tried to make them disapear).

        You have to submit your info to MassDOT to download the document. Maybe some people just want to read it without doing that. Also archive.org gives a more trustworthy, reliable place to record this. The state uses some weirdly complicated Web 2.0 crud for the download software (what contractor made $$$$ off that I wonder). Aside from entering your personal info, you have to enable javascript and let through a number of 3rd party web servers if you’re the sort to use something like RequestPolicy to keep your website visits somewhat under control in terms of who gets your IP, etc.

        It’s legal to distribute public government documents, right? Copyright doesn’t apply since these are our (er, your, I should say — not quite a citizen yet, someone nudge me if Maura Healey runs for governor and I’ll push myself to apply) documents?

  11. “7.10.1 I-90 Urban Interchange Preferred Alternative Highway
    As described in Section 5.10, the pollutant emissions for the 2040 Build Alternative are higher by an average of 17% when compared to the pollutant emissions for the 2040 No Build Alternative.”

    This is the 1/2 billion dollar, as opposed to 1 billion dollar, no build option, the one that leaves the highway where it is? Also it doesn’t have us quietly screwing over students again while counting on them not to pay political attention. (Maybe I’m misunderstanding, but to me moving the highway closer to BU is screwing students who are studying there. I’ve heard how well “noise barriers” work in Watertown / West Newton.) So why would we pay a billion dollars for the more polluting option? If there are safety issues making the cars make that little bend then reduce the speed limit there, which would further alleviate the noise and pollution. What am I missing?

  12. Disappointing, but realistic within the current funding stream. It is more important to make sure the current system works than to create a larger broken system.

    An increase in the gas tax, or some other broad-based source would be much more reliable than increasing the income tax rate on high earners. States often find that increasing tax rates on the highest earners doesn’t actually result in much additional revenue. (See, Connecticut.) These earners have a relatively easy time shifting returns to other states with lower taxes. A gas tax, on the other hand, is much harder to avoid.

  13. Will,
    This is disappointing news. I hope that public transportation projects will take priorities and execute efficiently.

    This is just another example why we are still struggling with aging infrastrcutures. It took me one hour to ride red line from Alewife to Downtown crossing. The system is overloaded and falling apart.

  14. Thank you for following this project closely and sharing updates and your point of view.

    I don’t want this project to turn into both a missed opportunity to improve people’s ability to get around conveniently and healthily, and a set of steps to further embed car-centric transportation — without mitigation.

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