Mass. should seek fed grants on I-90 Allston this month

Project is exactly the type Biden, Buttigieg are looking for

WHEN OPPORTUNITY knocks, it’s a good idea to open the door.

The federal government, thanks to underappreciated efforts by Congressional Democrats and strong presidential leadership, is now accepting applications for transportation projects that will receive funding from last year’s historic bi-partisan infrastructure bill. This time, the federal government is looking for large scale highway or bridge projects, and they are willing to pay over 50 percent of the project’s costs. Applications are due in late May. It’s a great opportunity for states to leverage federal funding support to advance worthy projects.

The Biden administration is encouraging states to think about all transportation projects, especially those offering regional mobility and economic benefits, in the context of how they may be structured and designed to promote sustainability goals. The infrastructure bill is an extraordinary opportunity to advance the proposed at-grade redesign of the Allston 1-90 viaduct, a project that will transform a highway safety project into a regional exemplar for sustainable, multi-modal transportation.

One unique feature of the new federal infrastructure law is that it provides separate categories of discretionary (rather than formula) funding. These discretionary funds will be awarded to projects that are responsive to the clear direction being set by Secretary {ete Buttigieg, including that states take steps to correct the mistakes of the 1950s and 1960s, when highways too often damaged neighborhoods by insensitively building viaducts dividing neighborhoods and imposing significant environmental impacts on what remained. To his credit, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that he wants to see Massachusetts compete for these federal funds, and the Allston I-90 multimodal project is exactly the type we believe Buttigieg and the US Department of Transportation is looking to support.

Strong and persistent advocacy by local residents (the Allston I-90 Task Force and the People’s Pike), the city of Boston, and the transportation team at A Better City made a compelling case for the at-grade design, a smart and forward looking way to both reverse the mistakes of the 1960s and advance a 21st Century vision for people-friendly, multi-modal mobility. The at-grade solution for I-90 was wisely supported by transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler and the Wu administration.

A recent letter from Wu and the city’s transportation chief Jascha Franklin-Hodge made the case for the at-grade solution as the best way to set the stage for sustainable growth in the Allston Yards area, ensuring that the neighborhood is well served by transit and rail at a new West Station, and supporting walking and biking particularly along safer, improved riverfront paths.

Wu’s letter, which laid out a thorough and compelling argument for the highway project as a transformative sustainable mobility initiative, was warmly received by advocates and neighborhood residents who have brought informed and thoughtful community input into this process. This should be the kind of highway project the Biden/Buttigieg USDOT wants to support: one that takes a necessary highway reconstruction project and transforms it into one that supports larger sustainability and neighborhood-friendly goals.

The timing for the Allston project is especially favorable if MassDOT applies this year.  The federal government is looking for larger roadway “mega projects” that can begin construction before fall 2025.  In terms of state resources, Massachusetts will need to spend money on the Allston I-90 project in one form or another, as the structurally deficient elevated viaduct needs to be replaced.

The project as currently conceived does not repeat the mistakes of the past but provides neighborhood-friendly, sustainable, and transformational outcomes, including connectivity between city neighborhoods and the Charles River. Not since the construction of the Prudential Center added acres of new development opportunity on a deck over massive rail and turnpike infrastructure replacing a freight yard in the Back Bay, seamlessly connecting neighborhoods, has there been an opportunity for transformative change on a large scale as is presented by the Allston Landing project.

And the benefits go well beyond Boston. The project’s regional benefits, including as a gateway to and from metrowest and Western Massachusetts, will also improve access for Massachusetts residents along the I-90 corridor, including one day to Springfield and beyond.

The Baker administration’s transportation bond bill, currently before the Legislature, includes some funding that would support the state’s contribution to this massive project. State Transportation Secretary Tesler has wisely decided not simply to rely on federal formula funding for projects, but to pursue the new federal competitive grant programs that can help states advance critical projects.

Given the importance of getting this project moving in the right direction, not to mention how hard the Massachusetts Congressional delegation worked to secure passage of the bi-partisan infrastructure bill, and with the strong and critical support of Mayor Wu, MassDOT should submit the strongest possible application for grant funding by the May deadline.

With all these factors, and the potential benefits to commuters stretching from Boston to Worcester and beyond, opportunities like this come along once in a generation.    Massachusetts has a historic opportunity to remake the interstate highway entering Boston in a way that will repair not just the highway but decades of negative impacts on neighborhoods in Boston and Cambridge. Getting this right will be an important step forward for regional mobility that is sustainable and neighborhood-friendly.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Opportunity is knocking, let’s open the door that leads to a new Allston.

Richard Dimino is president and CEO of A Better City and James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and a board member of TransitMatters.