How not to build a highway

No one thought of the damage the Turnpike would do to Allston, Brighton

First of three parts

THE CONSTRUCTION of the Mass Turnpike through Allston, Brighton, and Newton in the late 1950s and early 1960s was a textbook example of the community, environmental, and social destructiveness of the highway construction of the era. This interstate highway segment was built without federal funds, before the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, and before the passage of the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, so no analysis was required of its social, environmental, or community impacts.

In North Brighton, the entire south side of Lincoln Street was taken by eminent domain and demolished, including Fred Salvucci’s grandmother’s house. Lincoln Street had been a community center, with a thriving Lithuanian Club, a Settlement House, a Polish bakery, and neighborhood stores. There was wood-frame housing occupied by relatively low income workers, many of whom were losing jobs in the slaughter houses and stockyards that were closing at that time. No relocation nor replacement housing assistance was provided to those displaced.

The Allston and Brighton neighborhoods, which had been served by three separate passenger rail stations, were deprived of  passenger rail when the stations were destroyed while building the toll road. Allston  had no rail service for the following half century.

In Newton, historic minority communities in West Newton and Newtonville were substantially cleared by eminent domain, scattering the population. Newton Corner, which had been a vibrant local community centered on a rail station, became a weird gigantic rotary around an isolated air rights hotel, eliminating the station, and severing the North/South connectivity of the previous commercial center. (The rotary is known locally as “The Circle of Death.”)

Newton Corner, Exit 17 on the Turnpike.

In addition to the sense of chaos when motorists navigate the giant rotary, eastbound Turnpike travelers are routinely confronted by dangerous backup from the off-ramp onto the turnpike by motorists tied up in the complicated street traffic pattern.

The three remaining Newton stations today operate only in the peak direction, reversing direction at midday, reducing their usefulness, and cutting the frequency of all service west of the switch point.

Further west, at the Newton-Weston boundary, the Turnpike interchange with Route 128/I-95 involves multiple bridges crossing the Charles River, short weaving sections, and curving connections. The roadways cause backups on both interstate highways. It’s an area where a regional rail station would have made sense.

The destructive legacy includes adverse health impacts in our communities. Expanding the city economy by adding the Prudential Center added jobs and tax base that are very beneficial. But the loss in rail service to Allston and Brighton for the next half century, and the substantial reduction in passenger rail capacity to the entire western corridor caused by the thoughtless nature of the Turnpike construction has meant a great increase in automobile trips under congested conditions, and spillover traffic through our communities ever since, causing unnecessary increases in air pollution and respiratory illness.

There were also substantial adverse impacts upon parks, and our access to parks. Today, most of the riverbanks adjacent to the Charles River Basin provide public access on beautiful esplanades with mature trees providing shade to the parks. Both pedestrians and bicycle riders are accommodated, often on separate paths.

But the section of the riverbank in Allston between the BU Bridge and the River Street bridge that remained after the Turnpike construction is a narrow and degraded exception. An 8-foot-wide wooden path cantilevered over the river was added as an afterthought to connect the Paul Dudley White Path, causing the most narrow constraint in the width of the river to accommodate boating, and causing a blind corner where pedestrians, joggers, and bicycle riders risk collisions.

The 8-foot path continues along the treeless top edge of the crumbling riverbank to the west until the approach to the River Street bridge. There, an off ramp from Soldiers Field Road takes all of the space, and path users have only the narrow sidewalk of the ramp to reach the River Street intersection, where bike riders and pedestrians spill off of the narrow sidewalk into the busy traffic. The only access from  the river to Allston is on sidewalks along the steep elevated viaduct of Cambridge Street. The noise caused by the traffic on the viaducts and trains pervades the nearby parks and neighborhoods.

Like the razing of homes, the current state of the riverfront is the legacy of highway built by a powerful agency, without environmental review, community input, or adequate oversight by elected officials.


The Turnpike extension (I-90) from Route 128 into the Southeast Expressway and Central Artery was built without the use of  any federal or state gas tax funding. The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority used funds obtained by borrowing against the expected toll revenues from drivers.

The Turnpike Authority had been established as an independent authority, and its Robert Moses-like chair, William Callahan, had an active disagreement with then-Governor John Volpe about the use of tolls to finance the road, and a very adversarial relationship with the Metropolitan District Commission, an agency under the control of the governor with responsibility for the Soldiers Field Road Parkway, and the Charles River.

In this power struggle, the Turnpike Authority derived leverage from strong political support, especially from the Prudential Insurance Company, which refused to proceed with its investment in the Prudential Center until it was assured that the Turnpike extension would be built. The Prudential Center was the first significant investment in the city since the Great Depression and World War II. Connecting the suburbs, and the popular suburban highway Route 128, into the Prudential Center with direct ramps to its garage entrance as well as connections to the Central Artery was seen as an essential building block to resuscitating the economy of the city. The idea enjoyed strong support from Mayor John Hynes of Boston.

Prudential Tower

No one thought about the damage it would do to Allston and Brighton.

In Allston, Callahan sought to save money by putting the Turnpike at grade level by filling in part of the Charles River and moving Soldiers Field Road onto the fill. The governor wanted the road built with federal interstate highway funds, obviating the need for a toll plaza, and supported the Metropolitan District Commission. Mutual eminent domain takings were threatened by the Turnpike Authority and the commission. The commission refused to yield. There was even confrontation between Turnpike survey crews and police officers working for the commission before the parties went to court, where the commission’s authority to block a Turnpike taking of one of its parks and its river assets was upheld.

Out of time and land, Callahan reacted by erecting the current steep and curving roller coaster road under the BU Bridge, over the rail tracks and freight yard, under Cambridge Street adjacent to the Allston Depot, and then along the south side of Lincoln Street, razing all the houses in the way. The possibility of using the abouttobevacant stockyards or a relocated freight yard to avoid some of this damage was apparently never considered.

The Boston and Albany railroad retained a large freight rail yard in this area, constraining passenger rail operations to a single track, with unreliable and infrequent service, even though the industrial character of the area was changing with the closing of the stockyards and slaughter houses in North Brighton.

The retention of the freight yard, plus adding space for the multiple Turnpike ramps into the toll plaza, had a major impact on the historic business center at Allston Depot. The new configuration eliminated  passenger platforms, closed  passenger operations there, and separated South Allston from North Allston, resulting in a deeply flawed infrastructure that damaged all the surrounding neighborhoods.

The Cambridge Street Bridge crossing over both the Turnpike and rail tracks is steeply sloped, causing poor visibility for autos, dangerous pedestrian crossing conditions, and exacerbating the separation of the South Allston community from North Allston.

New York Central Railroad (Boston and Albany parent company) employee magazine Headlights from February 1965 showing an aerial photograph of the completed Boston Extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike

Meet the Author

Fred Salvucci

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

Anthony D'Isidoro

President, Allston Civic Association
Both North Allston and South Allston are also effectively cut off from access to the Charles River and its parks, both because of the infrastructure described above, but also because of the second Cambridge street overpass between Seattle Street and Soldiers Field Road, with its steep slopes, and narrow and isolated sidewalks, which provides minimal and unpleasant access to the Charles River.

This separation  is further worsened by the very skimpy sidewalk between the Charles River embankment and the westbound off ramp from Soldiers Field Road to River Street, the only access for pedestrians and bikes to the Paul Dudley White Path and riverbank.

Further East, close to the Grand Junction rail bridge, Soldiers Field Road was built with minimal green space to either side. There is no safe park use adjacent to the Turnpike, and the narrow river bank is blocked by the bridge structure for the Grand Junction railroad.

The Grand Junction two-track railway bridge over the river was constrained to a single track in order to curve and descend under the Turnpike viaduct, with a reverse curve to allow the Grand Junction tracks to pass under the viaduct structure to join the Worcester branch and the freight yard. The main line of the Worcester Branch was also forced to use a double reverse curve so that the turnpike viaduct rising to the west of the BU Bridge would be sufficiently high for the at-grade rail line to get under it. This awkward infrastructure caused noise impacts on all the adjacent neighbors, in Allston, Cambridge, and at Boston University.

In sum, the Allston infrastructure includes noisy, dangerous, curvy, and roller coaster sections of Turnpike and ramps; curved and constrained space and speeds for the rail lines; and a degraded treeless river bank with an 8-foot-wide path for pedestrians, joggers, and bicycles culminating in the ramp sidewalk at River Street Bridge, providing  essentially no access to the river for Allston residents, and a severe lack of connectivity between North and South Allston, an environmental justice neighborhood.

To add insult to injury, for the past six decades residents of Allston, Brighton, and Newton have been paying tolls to finance and maintain the road construction that has done so much damage to their communities.

But now that electronic tolling has eliminated the need for motorists to stop and pay tolls, the increased vehicle speed has increased the danger of the curved ramps, and the 60-year-old functionally deficient Turnpike viaduct and Cambridge Street bridges have become structurally deteriorated, and past their useful life. There is now a need to renew the infrastructure, and an opportunity to build it back better.

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: part 2 – The Allston Multimodal Plan:  What are the details, how have we gotten this far, and what needs to happen next?