At a meeting in Framingham last night, Senate President Spilka sent MassDOT a message that should be very much appreciated by the inner core commuters that I represent: Use all the creativity you can muster to reduce congestion and please come up with solutions soon — before you start construction on the MassPike viaduct.
MassDOT made clear that they hear that message and accept the challenge. MassDOT has been working for the past five years to design a project to replace the failing MassPike viaduct in Allston. The project will straighten the MassPike, improve capacity and make it safer. It will create opportunities to expand Worcester commuter rail service.
To accomplish all of that, the project will move the MassPike from the north side of the large abandoned rail yard in Allston to the south side of that rail yard. By so doing, it will also make roughly 100 acres of land, currently owned by Harvard University, available for development.
The project is spectacularly complicated, involving reconstruction not only of the MassPike, but also Soldiers Field Road and the Worcester railroad line. Over 200,000 commuters use these routes every day. The project team is just beginning to grapple with the challenge of how to stage construction so as to minimize the extent and duration of lane and track closures.
Senate President Spilka and other Metrowest legislators and advocates expressed great concern about potential closures and emphasized that congestion on the MassPike and throughout Metrowest is already unacceptable.
“There is no rush hour anymore” said one Framingham resident, observing that the MassPike is often congested all-day. From her perspective, “MetroWest has been taking the hits for years.” A project team member noted that the round-the-clock congestion makes it even harder to find times that construction crews can work without disrupting traffic.
Many of my constituents in Belmont, Watertown, and Boston would say the same about the roads they use. Metrowest and inner core commuters are demanding the same things — public transportation that works and an expansion of public transportation that works to reduce congestion.
The most promising approach to expanding regional transportation capacity may be to provide more frequent service on our regional rail network. More long distance commuters could use rail and more inner core commuters would have the option of using rail instead of transit.
Another concept that offers benefits for both long distance and inner core commuters is connecting Allston directly to Cambridge using the “Grand Junction” rail link that is currently only used for shifting trains between commuter lines.
But even rail improvements raise issues. One Framingham resident complained about the local congestion caused by the downtown grade-crossing on the Worcester line, saying “We have gridlock in downtown Framingham.” Others raised the lack of parking for commuters.
One respect in which the interests of inner core and Metrowest commuters may conflict is that more inner core stations on the Worcester line mean longer trips for people coming from further out. We have added two stops recently — Yawkey in Fenway and Boston Landing in Brighton. I am a strong advocate for the proposed West station to better serve Allston, but one Metrowest legislator expressed strong opposition to it, unless off-setting changes can be made to improve Worcester line express service.
A MassDOT team has been carefully studying what investments would be required to add more local and express service on each of our rail lines. That study should be complete before the end of this year.
The challenge will then be how to fund those rail investments. Senate President Spilka has already empaneled groups studying transportation and revenue. She has the funding challenge as a top priority both from her leadership perspective and from her local perspective representing Metrowest. This challenge is also a top priority for me.
Representing Metrowest, the Senate President is especially conscious of the unfairness of our current transportation financing structure which tolls commuters from the west on the MassPike but does not toll other commuters. She has made clear that it will not be acceptable to fund the $1.2 billion Allston project on the “already-loaded backs of the toll-payers.”
As a frequent Red Line rider I am constantly aware that many commuters have more immediate concerns: The unacceptable Red Line crowding and unreliability due to the signal damage caused by the recent derailment. That accident was a terrible blow both for MBTA management and for MBTA users. The recovery has been painfully slow, but my communications with MBTA management give me faith that they will recover and return to a path of service improvement on the Red Line.
I will continue to keep both short-run and long-run transportation improvement front and center in my legislative efforts.