I-90 Allston Interchange Project Finance (2 Responses)

Note from Will B:

Thanks to Andrew for this overview of the financing of the I-90 Allston Interchange Project.

I’ve been attending many of the project planning meetings and I think it is a great project. There are a host of community concerns to address and several alternative approaches to tying together the various flows of cars, trains and people in the interchange, but the potential benefits are vast and I am confident that MassDOT, with help from a great group of advocates participating in the project task force, will sort the choices out.

The issue I’ve been increasingly concerned about is how to pay for the project — all-in cost estimates are approaching $0.5 billion. Given all the demands on our transportation budget, this is a very heavy lift. Andrew’s analysis below gives a sense of the project components and possible funding sources for each. My takeaway from the many conversations I’ve had is that other good projects are competing for all of those funding sources. The probable truth is that not everything we are envisioning for this project will get done at once.

Working with my legislative colleagues, I’ll be doing everything I can to assure that this project is fairly represented in the competitive funding conversations to come over the next few years.

The Allston I-90 Interchange Improvement Project will have a tremendous impact on the region.  The highway portion of the project will relocate and straighten the turnpike, the toll booths will be removed to facilitate electronic tolling and new interchange ramps will be built.  Previously inaccessible land will be opened up for potential development and completely reshape the neighborhood.  As the project task force works on the details of the design, it has become apparent that what at first glance looks like a single megaproject actually contains at least five separate components: 1) the highway and ramps 2) rail projects 3) bicycle and pedestrian facilities 4) new parkland, and 5) development of the newly accessible land.  At present, only the highway portion has been funded.

The $160M highway component of the project will be funded by money from toll revenues.  Toll revenue is restricted by law: it may only be used for improvements to tolled facilities.  An amendment to the state constitution restricts transportation related revenue and fees to be used for exclusively for transportation purposes.  The toll money for this portion of the turnpike, an entity known as the Metropolitan Highway System, pays for debt service and capital maintenance.  With more than half a billion dollars of unprogramed long term capital maintenance needs, the current MHS budget does not have extra funds to pay for other project components.  Additionally, the statute governing the use of tolls for the MHS, MGL Ch. 6C, §13 (c), sets a narrow limit, restricting the use of the tolls collected “exclusively to…such tolled roads.”  The precise limits of that language have yet to be tested in the courts but a reasonable interpretation of the statute would be that tolls can only be used for the highway and the ramps, not the other project components.  This interpretation is consistent with statements made by MassDOT.

A new commuter rail station has been proposed as part of the project.  West Station would be well located to serve several neighborhoods, employment districts and institutions via new pedestrian, bike and public transit connections.  As part of the rail project, the MBTA would also like to construct a layover and maintenance facility for the commuter rail, as part of the South Station Expansion Project.  This facility would consist of several train storage tracks, a power substation, smaller buildings and a longer building to accommodate a pit track, wheel truing equipment and car wash.  From West Station, it is possible to create connections to Kendall Square and North Station using the Grand Junction Railroad.  The previous administration had announced that West Station would be funded through a public-private partnership, with institutions and the MBTA splitting the cost of the new station.  These funding commitments have been put on hold as the size and desired amenities of the new station are fleshed out.  While a public-private partnership may still provide funding for the station, there is no funding source that has been identified.  Plans for passenger service to the north, which had been part of the prior administration’s capital plans, have been put on hold and there is currently no funding allocated for this service.

Neighborhood residents are particularly excited about the potential that this project has to reconnect North Allston and Allston Village, and to reconnect Allston to the Charles River.  To facilitate these goals a multi-use path and new parkland along the river have been called for.  Reclaiming parkland along the river would require moving Soldier’s Field Road away from the river.  This would potentially require the purchase of new land in addition to the costs of constructing and demolishing portions of Soldiers Field Road.  The owner of Soldiers Field Road is the Department of Conservation and Recreation so this effort may have to be funded through that department’s capital funding process.  If that were the case it would compete for funding with other conservation projects across the state for scarce funding.

A major benefit of this project is that it will open up a huge swath of highly valuable developable land.  Moving the highway will open access to 50 acres of developable land and presents a historic opportunity to create a new neighborhood with tremendous economic potential.  The city, the state and Harvard will all have some role to play in the planning and development related to this neighborhood.  Harvard is the landowner and has expressed a desire to maximize development opportunities and create an urban street grid however it is not clear what that will look like or who will be responsible for the costs and planning of this new neighborhood.

The funding for the highway project will come from toll money, the rest of the project remains without identified funding sources.  At both the state and federal level there is a finite amount of money available for transit projects.  Any state capital funding expenditures would have to be weighed against other priorities across the state.  Congress just passed a surface transportation bill that will provide $300 billion for highway and rail through 2020 however, federal funds are allocated to projects as part of a competitive process.  Any federal infrastructure grants would be awarded on a competitive basis as well.

Solving the funding challenges for this project is a top priority for Senator Brownsberger and other neighborhood legislators.  They recently met with Secretary Pollack and sent a letter, expressing the importance of providing funding for all of the project components.  All components should be constructed in order to maximize the project benefits.

Andrew Bettinelli
Legislative Aide
Office of State Senator William N. Brownsberger

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    Will Brownsberger
    State Senator
    2d Suffolk and Middlesex District