MassDOT and Harvard in Allston

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.

Update, January 21, 2018: Joint statement on the need for West Station

Working with neighborhood members and other legislators, Representative Moran drafted an excellent comment letter speaking to the need for West Station. I was pleased to be among the signatories of this letter and look forward to continuing to press the case for West Station. Read the letter at this link.

Update, January 27, 2018: Harvard statement re West Station

Read statement and comments here.

Update, March 4, 2018: MEPA Certificate issued

Secretary Beaton has reviewed the Draft Environmental Impact Report and authorized it to go to the next step. In the next step, an interim West Station alternative, as discussed in this post, is to be studied — see page 40 of the certificate:.

[T]he majority of commenters, including elected officials representing Boston, Brookline and Cambridge, urge MassDOT to construct West Station in Phase 1 of the project based on its ability to support the project’s multi-modal transportation goals and local and regional transportation needs. The City of Boston indicates that West Station plays a critical role in its planning goals for the Allston neighborhood and for providing multi-modal transportation options. There is significant support, in particular, for creation of north-south transit connections which West Station can facilitate. Based on consultation with the City of Boston, MassDOT has acknowledged the need to evaluate transit options in this area which will be addressed in the transit study. In combination with the analyses below, the FEIR should evaluate an interim WestStation alternative and include revisions to the design of a permanent station.

Published by Will Brownsberger

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

11 replies on “MassDOT and Harvard in Allston”

  1. Thanks for putting this out there so clearly, Will.
    While the transit issue is huge, a related question needs notice as well: the new surface connecting roads that will replace the on/off ramps (more valuable land for Harvard) and connect the Pike to Soldiers Field Road.
    These roads will be built on Harvard land, and MassDOT has so far avoided taking responsibility for them. They could be done badly–and push a lot of Turnpike traffic onto North Allston’s neighborhood streets, especially North Harvard St (where I live)–or properly, and spare the neighborhood a disastrous increase in traffic. Along with other negotiations around transit costs, green space, river access, bike and pedestrian throughways, the surface streets question will make a major difference in quality of life for North Allstonians as well as thousands of commuters.

  2. Harvard has more money than god and will continue to keep it. They will wait for the tax payers to fund the project and the tolls to go up

    1. Plus, unlike other large employers, they can’t threaten to leave in exchange for booty. What are they going to do, move to Toronto? So why the christmas present? If anything we should be going after their endowment, if it happens that the millionaires beat back this millionaire tax and the federal republicans don’t beat us to it.

  3. I’m very new to this project, however put me, tentatively, in the camp of the “NoBuild option.”

    1. their environmental impact report has that causing 17% less pollution than the more ambitious option.

    2. the ambitious option strikes me as picking winners and losers. Lower allston / Harvard gets to develop land. People now living next to the destined new spot for the highway gets more noise outside their windows.

    3. I don’t care about congestion. I live in Brighton near BC. We don’t have congestion here because it’s mostly students and they own cars at a much lower rate. To me, anyone in a car within city limits deserves what they get (except with those with mobility issues or with social work or other jobs where you need to get around that way). I gleefully stopped owning a car here, because parking and my commute make it undesirable. Also, getting rid of your car, next to not flying, is the simplest most immediate way to make a big impact on your CO2 emissions. So let development happen and go San Paolo on these people’s asses. Only by making driving difficult will we get these people out of cars. And while the majority are drivers we will never win these fights. Further, as you pointed out in the last meeting, the drivers voted not to pay a gas tax so no jumbo highway projects for them. Cheap as you can go with reduced speed limits, road diets, and trade parking for dedicated bus lanes for the 64/70 which their report suggests will be overcrowded. Since they’re all going to convert to electric cars (on our dime, see recent rate hike), we no longer have to worry about idling emissions. A car that’s not moving is a car that won’t kill me when I ride my bike. (well, okay, the one time I was hit was in congestion on Brighton Street, Belmont, when a guy got frustrated and tried to turn into the hardware store parking lot, taking the bike out from under me, but I jumped the handle bars and came to a running stop without so much as a scratch, so that sort of thing I can handle. Riding past a highway on ramp and having cars pass me fore and aft at 50 miles an hour, that’s what makes me nervous — but I think you can slow them down without moving the highway.)

    4. Our thinking now on CO2 reduction is at an infantile state. Somewhere down the line we’ll task MassDOT with projects that tackle that problem in a serious way. The current time, when people are being distracted by thoughts of self driving cars, Elon Musk’s products, Lyft and Uber, etc. etc. is obviously not that time. It’s funny, I was just reading some environmental discussion group on what some might call the “dark web” of 20 years ago. We haven’t gotten very far. Then the distraction was putting solar arrays in space with microwave beams to land receivers. Plus ca change…

    5. West Station at best would have offset the increased emissions by the straightened out highway. It’s a neat idea but I wouldn’t take it most likely, and it doesn’t add much given that stretch is walkable in less than an hour (of course, people with mobility problems should have some solution too, but maybe we don’t have to move a highway to do that?). I’m happy with my current commute to Kendall square:
    Morning summer: bicycle, not generally on Cambridge Street, which I only take for cheap thrills, our own Canobie Lake park that is, as I alluded to above.
    Morning winter: 86 bus or green line when I’m really late, with nice 30 minute walk from Cambridge or Somerville drop off point or across the Harvard Bridge getting of green line Hynes Convention stop. I’m very happy with this commute. Boston and Cambridge are lovely cities to walk around for the most part.
    Evenings are a good time to walk the whole way or else take the 86. The green line is impossible until 7 or so, at least without getting way closer to a bunch of twenty year olds than a “creepy old dude” should ever get.

    6. The current dead space: It’s an eye sore for sure (but how is Allston Allston without some eye sores?) but I don’t see how this isn’t going to be ugly with it being where people get off the highway. In western mass dead space like this is getting filled with solar arrays. Let harvard put down solar arrays and make taller buildings on other land they own if they need more office / classroom space. This is a stupid place to put parkland. Greenery near a highway just makes more pretty places to listen to highway noise.

    So I say concede defeat and treat this as a simple 20th highway upgrade project, but given that’s what it is make sure to spend the most minimal amount of money on it and make it pollute as little as we can. If it can be done at grade do that so whenever we get around to doing anything good there’s the ability to build over the highway.

    The horse trading process I don’t find attractive. Maybe west station or cambridge street improvements considered in isolation next to other potentail projects, transit of otherwise, would not actually look that great. 500 million dollars would buy a lot of Narcan, for instance.

  4. Another Boston Centric solution to transportation funded by the pockets of tax payers state wide. Vote no on this plan.

  5. Why not push to have these exempt universities actually pay property tax on the land and use that money to fund transit solutions the neighborhood desperately needs?

    1. A perennial question. The non-profit institutions are arguably protected constitutionally, and, in any event are very powerful politically taken all together — hospitals, universities, private schools, churches. No one has ever gotten very far with this.

      1. If they have all this power is there any way to play them off against General Motors / Lyft or the other companies Secretary Pollock has been so busy receiving talking points from of late? I assume this is where our new transportation policy is originating and why you can no longer find GreenDOT on any pages newer than 2014. I’m very worried about the casual way people (in Globe or Commonwealth Magazine articles) will dust programs that are predicted to increase VMT with “Zero Emission Vehicle” pixie dust, as if electric vehicles can give us more than a 50% reduction (peruse New England ISOs projections for energy mix over the coming decades if you want a sober dose of reality). 50 % may be amazing compared to past Massachusetts / USA accomplishments but it’s entirely inadequate if people mean what they say about committing to the Paris Accord rather than just using it to distance themselves from federal Republicans and their (more?) transparent shilling for vested interests.

  6. How come the redesign of the toll booths at Weston/Rte128/RTe16/Rte30 did NOT include any thought to building a rail station at that area? The Bos-Worc line is a few hundred feet away. A public golf course is on the other side of the tracks. The Charles River runs through the area. And … the Riverside Line terminates not far away(in fact the “D” line used to return to South Station). PLUS … the abandoned freight line through Newton LFalls to Wellesley could be a trolley line; that is, if the NIMBIes did not object, sadly. The traffic along Rtes 16 and 30 is awful during rush hours!!!

    1. The toll booth project had enough to worry about!

      But I love the idea. It is a much bigger thing and has to be considered in the context of the regional rail vision that MassDOT is developing.

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