A new, bigger I-90 viaduct is not the answer

Leaders of CLF, A Better City back at-grade approach

IN 1965, Massachusetts officials opened the Allston section of I-90, shoehorning an eight-lane elevated highway between Boston University and the Charles River, dividing a vibrant working-class community and wounding vital riverfront habitat in the process.

Some 60 years later, Boston, Brookline, and Cambridge still endure impacts from this obsolete, failed transportation policy that placed a highway above the needs of neighborhoods and the environment.

Fortunately, this outdated viaduct needs to be replaced, allowing the Commonwealth to construct a future where the needs of public transit riders, cyclists, pedestrians, and the health of the river are as important as motorists traveling on this section of highway. Nearly all key stakeholders and public officials have embraced this opportunity to transform Boston’s western gateway into a showpiece of enhanced urban design and environmental planning, with a new transit station in Allston at the heart of the plans.

Let’s get this project done. We can think big to improve mobility and protect the Charles River.

Nearly all stakeholders, including the city of Boston, agree that we should pursue a strategy for I-90 that plans for our future transportation needs, not reprise last-century’s failed approaches to create a new, bigger viaduct. The state continues to have the bigger viaduct plan on the table. We urge them to instead give fair and robust consideration to an all at-grade solution, which has the support of most stakeholders.

The two of us come to these issues with very different perspectives, but fully agree that any decision that rejects the innovative at-grade option will be driven not by environmental rules, but by a lack of vision.

MassDOT’s newly unveiled “Modified Highway Viaduct” option would not only keep the elevated highway but make it taller and wider. This new pronouncement came as a shock to nearly all stakeholders, given that Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack herself took such options off the table in January 2019.

Past urban design mistakes are seldom remedied by making them taller and wider. The state has also offered an “alternative” to this new viaduct: the worst possible version of an at-grade roadway. This version would unlawfully and permanently place a roadway in the Charles River, impacting this critical resource.

There are better options. An at-grade design developed by A Better City has the potential to avoid roadway impacts to the river while incorporating elements like a living shoreline, a parkway with large trees to add shade and reduce heat, and enhanced pedestrian and bicyclist access to the river’s edge.

This improved surface option is also designed to ensure that two-track commuter rail service on the Worcester Line remains in service during construction. Not surprisingly, the city of Boston, numerous stakeholders, and the two of us want this option to stay on the table.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Instead of presenting this better surface alternative for review, MassDOT included in its most recent scoping document an outdated and troubling 1960s new viaduct design that doesn’t adequately address the transit needs of communities west of Boston or the universally supported objective of giving the communities of Allston, Brookline, and Boston University greater access to the river. MassDOT’s preferred option would only burden Allston and Cambridgeport residents with more noise and pollution as well.

It’s not too late for Gov. Charlie Baker’s legacy to include giving Boston and the region a western gateway equal to its aspirations as a leader in urban design, transportation vision, and environmental planning.  Indeed, the law requires officials to consider each alterative along with mitigation plans before selecting a preferred design – an approach we should embrace instead of rushing to anchor the city — in cement — to its past mistakes.

Bradley M. Campbell is president of the Conservation Law Foundation and Richard A. Dimino is president and CEO of A Better City.