The Board of MassDOT will soon embark on a critical negotiation with Harvard University about the scope and funding for the I-90 Allston Interchange Project. I hope that the Board will be able to persuade Harvard to contribute enough to support bold new transit options.
A recent transportation capacity study confirmed that the region is going to experience continuing increases in congestion over the next couple of decades. Residents of many neighborhoods already feel that congestion is degrading their quality of life, especially in Allston and Brighton where residents have long taken the brunt of the institutional expansion of Harvard, Boston College and Boston University.
The I-90 Allston Interchange Project will unlock approximately 50 acres of developable land and an additional 20 acres of potential air rights construction – all owned by Harvard University. When this huge property is ultimately developed it will add noticeably to congestion in the already congested surrounding neighborhoods.
Harvard has already spent close to half a billion dollars acquiring the property and cleaning it up, but Harvard cannot use the property for any gainful purpose now because it is enclosed within the curve of the Mass Pike around the Allston interchange.
The proposed project would straighten the Pike and put it on the other side of the property, transforming the property from a useless abandoned rail yard into a spectacular shovel-ready development opportunity lying along the Charles between the River Street Bridge and the BU Bridge.
MassDOT needs to rebuild the viaduct that supports the Pike in that stretch. MassDOT could simply rebuild it in place, leaving Harvard’s property locked up. That minimal project costs $200 to $300 million dollars.
Over the past few years, in consultation with Harvard, the City of Boston and a task force of community representatives and advocates, MassDOT has developed a much more ambitious plan that would include the relocation of the Pike to free-up the property. The more ambitious plan, of which there are several different versions, costs approximately $1 billion dollars.
The more ambitious plan has many desirable features, but for residents concerned about congestion, the single most critical feature of the new plan is the construction of West Station. West Station would be a rail and transit hub that would help alleviate the congestion arising from the planned development. It could support bus service from Cambridge to Longwood, improved rail service from Allston to downtown, and a rail connection directly from Allston through Kendall Square to North station,
Currently, to the frustration of many who have participated in the planning process, MassDOT is positioning the West Station element of the project a couple of decades into the future, intending to couple it with the actual development of the area, which is years away and still undefined. This reflects the view of planners that demand for the station will not cost-justify its construction until the development is in place.
Over the next few months, there will be a lot of heated discussion about the transit demand projections. Regardless of the outcome of that discussion, which is likely to be inconclusive, there is a strong argument for pressing for the early construction of West Station: Right now is when the Commonwealth has the maximum leverage to push Harvard to accept responsibility for funding the station and for funding a large portion of the whole ambitious project which creates the opportunity for Harvard’s continued long-term expansion.
From the standpoint of the impacted communities, the expansion is a net negative without the new transit capacity and some would go as far as to oppose the project if the transit component is pushed into the future-maybe category.
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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