Massachusetts officials say the state needs to move forward with a plan for what amounts to the largest Boston highway project since the Big Dig.
However, the question of how exactly to rebuild an aging Massachusetts Turnpike viaduct through Allston — and thread the eight-lane highway, Soldiers Field Road, several rail lines, and pathways for cyclists and pedestrians through a barely 200-foot-wide area between Boston University and the Charles River — has become increasingly vexing.
“It is frustrating at times that it seems to be so difficult,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said during a meeting Monday.
Officials are hoping that their third proposal is the charm.
The complicated, $1 billion project aims to rebuild the viaduct and straighten out a curve in the Mass. Pike just northwest of the BU campus. In doing so, the project will free up a former rail yard for development by Harvard University and make room for a future West Station serving the Worcester/Framingham commuter rail line, local buses, and potentially even future passenger service along the Grand Junction Route.
But the transformative realignment also means officials have to figure out what to do with the narrow riverside area known as the “throat.” Currently, the Mass. Pike runs above the commuter rail tracks on a viaduct, looming over Soldiers Field Road, as well as a bike path along the river that cyclists and pedestrians must share.
Under all circumstances, officials say something has no be done about the “structurally deficient” viaduct for safety reasons. However, their previous proposals have faced opposition.
One early idea was to build everything — the Pike, the four-lane Soldiers Field Road, the railways, the bike and pedestrian paths — at ground level. But that would require filling in some of the Charles River to create more land, which Pollack says could threaten its chances of receiving environmental permits.
Last year, it seemed like transportation officials had settled on a plan to put Solders Field Road on a viaduct above the Mass. Pike. However, that proposal has faced pushback from local officials and activists. It would entail a decade of disruptive work, including highway lane and track closures, as well as a temporary Soldiers Field Road detour roadway in the river itself.
State environmental officials say that even a temporary structure in the river would be “excessive” and difficult to permit. And as The Boston Globe reported over the weekend, Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Ayanna Pressley wrote a letter to Pollack two weeks ago opposing the designs and asking her to consider other options (officials have also looked at putting either the railroad or bike path on a viaduct, but found the former to be unviable and a lack of public interest in the latter).
So during the meeting Monday afternoon, Pollack proposed a new option: Build a “different” Mass. Pike viaduct.
The new viaduct would be a bit shorter and narrower, and moved closer to BU to make that area of riverfront more welcoming. The simpler construction schedule would take between six-and-a-half and eight years — as opposed to eight to 10 to build a viaduct for Soldiers Field Road — and would not require any construction in the Charles River. It would also not require the closure of the Grand Junction railroad, which the MBTA uses to move commuter rail trains from the north to the south side of Boston.
According to Pollack, the redesigned Mass. Pike viaduct would provide more “flexibility” to allocate space among Soldiers Field Road, separated bike and pedestrian paths, and riverfront parkland. And unlike an earlier viaduct proposal, it allows the construction of a footbridge to the Charles River running above Soldiers Field Road and rail tracks, but underneath the Mass. Pike.
“We’ve been able to carve out enough space for pedestrian users and cyclists moving from the Commonwealth Ave. side … over to the expanded parkland along the Charles River,” Mike O’Dowd, the project manager for MassDOT, said during the meeting.
Pollack said the state will advance all three proposals for further study, without officially indicating preference for any one of the three. However, the secretary expressed thinning patience with the already years-long process. A matrix presented during the meeting Monday also suggested that the proposal to build a new Mass. Pike viaduct was “more favorable” to the two other alternatives across an array of construction and final design considerations.
“This will be the third time in the five-and-a-half years that I have been secretary where we have been specifically been asked not to proposed a preferred alternative,” Pollack said.
“This is the third time, but I will also say this is the last time,” she added.
Pollack said the state needs to make a decision “in months, not in years,” though it will still be several years before construction begins.
According to the Globe, the plan still faces resistance.
While officials said Monday that they would try to make a potential new viaduct more aesthetically pleasing, several neighborhood and environmental advocates expressed concerns about keeping such an “eyesore” along the river and called for a less highway-centric plan. Prior to the meeting, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh also signed a letter with other local elected officials stating that they “stand with” residents opposed to keeping the viaduct in place. According to the Globe, Walsh’s office is reviewing the new idea.
During the meeting, Pollack also announced that West Station will accommodate four tracks, as well as an express track, to accommodate express trains for Worcester and “possibly” even trains from as far out as Springfield and Pittsfield, if the state pursues an East-West rail proposal. The four-track configuration would also accommodate potential Grand Junction passenger service.
Pollack stressed during the meeting that, currently, a much higher volume of people rely upon the two roadways to travel through the “throat” than other modes. The Mass. Pike carries 150,000 vehicles a day, including freight vehicles to and from Boston’s industrial ports. Pollack also remarked that Soldiers Field Road carries 75,000 cars a day, which she found surprisingly high. Meanwhile, the Worcester/Framingham Line carries 18,000 commuters a day.
Pollack said they’re planning to keep I-90 at four lanes in each direction. The plans did note that, if traffic was significantly reduced, there’s potential to redesign Soldiers Field Road into a true parkway in the future, as Pollack said “could have and should have” been originally done. But the fact that so many commuters currently use it make that difficult.
Alluding to the calls to reduce roadway lanes, Pollack acknowledged that it would be “a good thing” to shift more traffic from Soldiers Field Road to the Mass. Pike or other transit modes. However, even if officials were able to double the number of commuter rail passengers, she said people should have a “sense of proportion” about how many people drive.
“While it would be a very meaningful uptick, the 20,000 additional passengers in raw numbers, if we were to double the carriage of the Worcester/Framingham Line, would constitute a relatively small proportion of the combined traffic of I-90 and Soliders Field,” Pollack said.