A partnership of sorts is transforming, recovering Allston

The pieces of the transportation puzzle are starting to fall into place

Second of three parts.

IN THE PAST two decades, a partnership of sorts has emerged between the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the city of Boston, a variety of non-profit business and citizen groups, and Harvard University.

This partnership rests on a congruence of interests – MassDOT’s need to replace functionally obsolete and structurally unsound viaducts, a railroad needing to update and relocate freight facilities to a more central location, a private landowner with an unusual ability to take a long-term view of its own and the public interest, and a dedicated group of community activists involved in a lengthy planning and environmental review process, with strong support from local elected officials and two mayors of Boston. 

Closing in on its 400th anniversary, Harvard is an institution uniquely positioned to take a long view.  MassDOT, despite being pressed for funds, has skillfully used its leverage – plus Harvard’s – to win important strategic initiatives that have created the current opportunity. Boston University has made important contributions at key moments. The city of Boston, business and environmental nonprofit organizations, and community activists have forcefully and skillfully advocated for project elements that will benefit Allston-Brighton. But these urban constituencies have also worked through the task force mechanism to build alliances with suburban, central, and western constituencies such as the Worcester Chamber of Commerce, with approaches that improve safety and convenience for suburban and central Massachusetts auto and rail commuters at the same time.

By way of background, US railroads have very secure and unusual property rights. They can operate trains and rail yards on land they don’t own and which cannot be taken by state governments by eminent domain. (The proliferation of billboards along the Turnpike corridor is a visible symptom of the exemption from state and local regulation accorded to railroads.) 

Faneuil Depot circle 1910. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Vasiliades, vice president and photo collection curator of the Brighton Allston Historical Society.)

Faneuil Depot and some nearby houses demolished to make way for Massachusetts Turnpike. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Vasiliades, vice president and photo collection curator of the Brighton Allston Historical Society.)

The giant rail yard in Allston was once “owned” by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, but controlled by the freight giant CSX through a permanent and free easement. CSX freight  operations prevented two-track commuter rail service through Allston to Worcester, regularly slowed passenger rail service, and presented an impenetrable barrier to the Allston neighborhoods. The badly located freight yard was the primary cause of the very awkward Turnpike and rail infrastructure built in the 1960s.

In 2004, Turnpike Authority policy objectives included getting money from the sale of land it considered unusable because of the CSX presence, using the proceeds of the sale to pay for growing maintenance costs and replacing manual toll collection with more efficient electronic tolling without increasing tolls.  Because of the impossibility of using the land in the near term, Harvard was the only bidder, and purchased the land subject to the permanent easements for rail and highway purposes.

When the Turnpike Authority was merged into a multimodal MassDOT, policy objectives broadened to include improved travel times and safety on the Turnpike. The existing Turnpike infrastructure was deteriorating, and officials recognized the opportunity to straighten and improve the toll road with a new road, if the freight yard could be relocated. 

The multimodal MassDOT also saw an opportunity to secure ownership of a two-track passenger rail capacity for the Worcester branch, as well as ownership of the right of way of the Grand Junction through Cambridge, which connects the south side passenger rail operations to Kendall Square, and North Station, as well as the Somerville rail maintenance facility.

Over several years, MassDOT worked with Harvard, the city of Worcester, and CSX to relocate the freight yard activities to Worcester, and make feasible a safer, straighter Turnpike. Simultaneously, the purchase by MassDOT of the right of way for a two-track Worcester branch passenger service, once the freight yard was relocated, has allowed two-track service, through Allston, which has resulted in an increase in ridership of 45 percent in five years. The purchase of the Grand Junction right-of-way in Cambridge facilitates eventual two-track shuttle service to Kendall Square and North Station.

View from the top of the Doubletree Hotel down to the area slated to become Harvard’s new Allston neighborhood. The Harvard Business School and Harvard Stadium are in the background. (File photo)

At the same time, the state secured a commitment from Harvard to contribute funding toward a new regional West Station with at least four tracks to support convenient transfers to an eventual two-track Grand Junction rail shuttle as well as to provide access to anticipated new development in Allston.

Similar to the economic  opportunity unlocked in the 1960s when the obsolete rail yard in the Back Bay was replaced by the Prudential Center, the relocation of the CSX  freight yard, and the need to replace the functionally and structurally deficient Turnpike and rail infrastructure, now presents a huge  opportunity to achieve transportation and economic growth, but this time incorporating transformative environmental and equity gains as foundational principles, through serious implementation of federal environmental law.

In 2012, MassDOT initiated an environmental review process, and invited participation from community members and stakeholders through a project task force.  The first public comment by Rep. Kevin Honan was to urge MassDOT to use this opportunity to connect the isolated South Allston neighborhood to the rest of Allston.

Relatively quickly, consensus developed on replacing the awkward cloverleaf styleTurnpike ramps with an urban grid, conducive to developing a new economic development node around West Station.

What had begun as a highway interchange study became multimodal. The multimodal task force consensus was informed by earlier conceptual work by urban designer Antonio DiMambro, and by urban design work commissioned by the city of Boston.

The throat section of the Massachusetts Turnpike.

Dealing with the narrow “throat” section of the Turnpike and rail lines located to the east of Agganis Way between Boston University and the Charles River, has taken longer. The process has had fits and starts, but has recently produced a near-unanimous consensus around a less expensive, all-at-grade Turnpike and rail track configuration that can provide superior transportation infrastructure, and simultaneously facilitate dramatically improved connectivity of neighborhoods and land use on air rights above.

The concept was first proposed by citizen activist Ari Ofsevit, energetically  embraced and advanced by the business civic group A Better City, and supported by the Pioneer Institute and many environmental and community groups.

Concepts for the remediation of the crumbling degraded river bank, stormwater runoff and flood risks, and improved neighborhood connectivity to the Charles River basin were developed by pro-bono efforts contributed by private design firms secured by Walk Boston and the Charles River Conservancy, working collaboratively with stakeholders. Rep. Moran secured legislative language supporting the project in the House version of the transportation bond bill.  Former Boston Mayor Marty Walsh lent his support to these efforts.

Mayor Michelle Wu, during her campaign and at the outset of her term, has embraced the all-at-grade throat concept, with an essential network of pedestrian, bicycle, park, and urban development connectivity above.  She also convened meetings between the Allston community, local elected officials, and Harvard University to resolve outstanding issues on a nearby Harvard-sponsored private development. Her leadership resulted in Harvard agreeing to provide 25 percent affordable housing in that project, the highest proportion of affordable housing of any contemporary developments.

Following that agreement, Mayor Wu joined MassDOT in an application for federal funding for the Allston Multimodal Project.

The renewed commitment of the federal government to finance infrastructure through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Program, and the Biden administration emphasis upon building back old infrastructure better, with an eye to the future,provides an opportunity to advance the Allston Multimodal Project to significantly improve travel conditions for motorists, rail passengers, bicycle riders, and pedestrians, and remediate much of the social, economic and environmental damage done when the Turnpike was built through Allston.

Meet the Author

Fred Salvucci

Lecturer / Former state transportation secretary, MIT / State of Massachusetts
Meet the Author

Anthony D'Isidoro

President, Allston Civic Association

Vineland Street circa 1960, before most of the homes were removed as part of the Massachusetts Turnpike construction. (Photo courtesy of Charlie Vasiliades, vice president and photo collection curator of the Brighton Allston Historical Society.)

Vineland Street after construction. Photo courtesy of Charlie Vasiliades, vice president and photo collection curator of the Brighton Allston Historical Society.)

MassDOT recently initiated a modification of their environmental review documents, technically a “Notice of Project Change,” focusing their environmental, transportation, and engineering analysis on the all-at-grade Allston Multimodal Project.

There is significant work yet to do to get the details right, and ensure an equitable and high-quality outcome for parks, transit, and pedestrian-oriented development, as well as neighborhood connectivity, significantly improved rail service, and improved roadway conditions.

A final environmental impact statement must define a project that will not only deal with any new impacts identified, but remedy the legacy of adverse impact on equity, neighborhoods, parkland, public transportation, and noise caused by the original construction of the Turnpike.

That transformative Allston Multimodal Project description must then be used to implement the project, using the design-build technique that has been used to successfully implement the Green Line extension project, now nearing completion. With the continued support of Mayor Wu, and our local elected officials, we are confident that this can be achieved.

It is essential that the next governor work with Wu to complete the environmental process and begin implementation expeditiously, to take advantage of the federal funding now available. It is essential to end the unsafe roadway conditions, inadequate rail service, and adverse environmental impacts that we have been experiencing throughout the last half century, and set us on a more equitable and satisfactory path.

Fred Salvucci is a lifelong resident of Brighton, a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation, a lecturer at MIT, and an advisor to Harvard on infrastructure matters in Allston. Anthony D’Isidoro is a lifelong resident of Allston, president of the Allston Civic Association, and a member of the Allston Multimodal Project Task Force and Harvard Allston Task Force.

COMING NEXT – How the all-at-grade plan can remedy the problems caused by the initial construction of the Turnpike and lay the groundwork for a transformative and equitable economic expansion of the area. (To read the first part, click here.)