What am I missing at Allston Landing?

At-grade Pike, West Station early on are no-brainers

THERE ARE OCCASIONS in the making of public policy when you are left scratching your head, because the decision-making just doesn’t make sense, and you wonder what you may be missing.

I’m thinking today of Allston Landing, the vast urban wasteland of industrial, highway, and rail uses that for generations stood as a stark example of the auto-centric mentality of mid-20th Century.  Decisions made over the last 10 years – decisions regarding the state’s purchase of the CSX rail right-of-way from Boston to Worcester, the commencement of intercity rail service to Worcester, and the transformation of Turnpike toll collection from a manual system to an all-electronic system – have made it possible to advance the reclamation of Allston Landing as a key entry point to Boston from the west, a place no longer cut off from its neighboring communities and the Charles River, but rather a vibrant, multi-use, multi-modal 21st Century place.

The various investments I have referred to cost a lot of tax and toll payer money, and we are about to squander every nickel of those hard-earned dollars by doubling down on the mistakes of the past and maintaining Allston Landing as an unpleasant, unattractive, unsustainable example of urban transportation improvements gone wrong.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that the current elevated structure supporting a portion of Interstate 90 just east of Allston Landing is past its useful life, and MassDOT is taking steps to replace it.  This is both a public safety issue and a mobility issue – no one doubts that the structure needs to be dealt with. The question is whether it ought to be replaced by another elevated structure, or whether it should be redesigned as an at-grade highway.

The civic leadership group A Better City has developed a concept for an at-grade highway that passes muster from a solid engineering perspective, and comes in at a significant cost savings from MassDOT’s currently preferred elevated solution.  The cost differential is massive: the replacement by another elevated structure is at least $100 million, and probably more like $175-200 million, more expensive to build than the at-grade replacement.  Moreover, the elevated structure would come with about $1 million in additional annual maintenance costs once it is built.

There are no meaningful differences in how either alternative would function from a mobility perspective. So spending an additional several hundred million dollars doesn’t get you more bang for your tax and toll payer buck.  Reconstructing the elevated highway by replacing it with another elevated structure is therefore a classic misuse of public construction funds.

You would imagine that under a gubernatorial regime that describes itself as cost-conscious, such a result would not even be under serious consideration, but not only is it being seriously considered, it remains the preferred alternative.  How will that be explained to Jack and Judy commuter whose tolls will rise to support an elevated structure that could have been at-grade at much lower cost?

Then there’s West Station.  I’ve written about this before: the deferral of West Station until 2040, which remains under serious consideration, is unfathomable.  West Station should be among the first things you’d build, not the last. The argument to defer West Station for a generation, that ridership projections do not support it, is not based upon sound analysis.  It is more than an open secret that the modeling on which ridership projections are based is unreliable. This unreliability had made itself manifest on many occasions, most recently at the successful Boston Landing commuter rail site.  Ridership at that station, opened before a full development build-out, has far exceeded expectations based on prior modeling.

Moreover, waiting for the private sector to develop before you site a transit station ignores the realities of induced demand and the synergies between transit and development, as has been amply demonstrated at such places as Assembly Square and the Seaport District.  And if you think we have emerged from the smothering grip of auto-centric thinking, imagine this situation in reverse. Imagine someone saying that we won’t build a roadway network until the private sector develops first and we can have a clearer sense of demand.  That would be unthinkable. It should be equally unthinkable to defer West Station for an entire generation.

Deferring West Station until 2040 will condemn commuters west of Boston to a ride on the Turnpike that will continue to degrade beyond its already unacceptable levels of daily congestion. Let’s be clear about one fact: the Turnpike east of Route 128 is a highway that will not, cannot expand. There is literally nowhere to go to enlarge the constrained highway, so today’s chronic congestion will not abate.  Condemned to an antiquated and infrequent commuter rail system that fails too often, and also fails to provide service at convenient times during all hours of the day, commuters from the metrowest and Worcester regions are being left to their own devices.  Regional equity ought to be a pillar of our transportation policymaking; deferring West Station basically turns its back on regional equity and sends a stark, single message to metrowest and Worcester-area commuters:  you are on your own.

We hear a lot of talk about the importance of regional and social equity to the development of our transportation policies. Equity means many things, but in this context means access to employment in job-rich places such as Kendall Square. EMU shuttles (electric powered commuter trains) from West Station to Kendall using the Grand Junction Line would provide access to jobs, which is why companies like Microsoft, Google, and Draper Labs have expressed support for this critical mobility connection.  If one of the key rationales supporting transportation spending is to improve mobility to help residents access jobs, and to incentivize the private sector to invest and grow jobs, then why aren’t we listening to some of the most important job creators in the Commonwealth?

Without an early phase West Station, and a commitment to build it well before 2040, we are telling a generation of residents in the metrowest and Worcester regions that they are effectively cut off from efficient, reliable rail mobility access to those jobs, and that they will pay higher tolls for a highly congested ride on a highway that cannot expand its capacity.  It needs to be underscored: what will take place at Allston Landing is not simply, or even primarily, a Boston/Cambridge issue.  To the contrary, it has significant and lasting impacts on tens of thousands of residents of communities west of Boston.

There are three large questions that hover over all of this.

First, why would anyone choose a substantially more expensive approach to reconstructing the elevated highway when there is a considerably less expensive approach that offers the same mobility functionality?

Second, how can transportation planners, in good conscience, ask commuters to pay more in tolls and endure chronic and unabated traffic congestion on I-90 without offering them, in the short term, the benefit of a meaningful intercity rail alternative?

Third, why would thoughtful transportation planners turn their backs on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, made financially easier by a commitment from Harvard University to contribute to early-phase funding, to build a highly functional multi-modal site at West Station, a site whose primary purpose will be to provide a high level of regional and social equity primarily through access to jobs?

These are chief among the questions presented by the current standoff between the community and MassDOT in connection with the reclamation of Allston Landing.  There are other equally compelling issues, including whether planners will take this opportunity to improve the currently unsafe and unsightly river pathway between the River Street and BU bridges. And I suppose there is another, deeply important question that needs to be asked: are we truly committed to building a sustainable mobility future, and if so, why isn’t it our obligation to engage the multiple mobility issues arising from the Allston Landing opportunity through a filter that insists upon an improved intercity rail system and an improved public realm for safe walking and cycling as critical and unconditional early phase components or commitments?

Civic leadership is urgently needed to supplement the strong community activism coming from Boston and Cambridge residents.  A Better City is providing that, as are the advocacy groups Walk Boston and the Charles River Conservancy. More is needed.  Harvard, the institution with the most to lose from MassDOT’s current preferred approach, might say: we will put a moratorium on building at Allston Landing without a commitment to an early phase West Station.  That would be a leadership position, but it would also be in Harvard’s self-interest, because deferring West Station for over 20 years will be a significant drag on development in this potentially transit-rich location. The evidence for how to spark development is all around us: you build out the transit early.  The Seaport District and Assembly Square are examples of how this works.  Suffolk Downs, which already has two Blue Line transit stations bracketing its property, is another.  Harvard may think it is immune to the forces of nature that everyone else has to live by, but I would not want to be the person explaining to incoming Harvard President Lawrence Bacow why Harvard is not leveraging its considerable influence to direct a result that is both in Harvard’s interests and the public’s interests.  The risk is large: a degraded development opportunity that can never be reclaimed.

Meet the Author

Sometimes policy decisions get made that leave you scratching your head.  You wonder, you ask yourself, how it is that in the first quarter of the 21st Century we are approaching a highway reconstruction project as if it was 1962?  You wonder why we would make decisions based on faulty modeling that will condemn tens of thousands of people west of Boston to a future without a meaningfully reliable intercity rail alternative to one of the state’s most heavily congested highways. You wonder about missed opportunities that, once deferred for a generation, rarely come back. All we can do in our lives is seize the moment before us, because time does not stand still, and opportunities, unlike creatures preserved in amber, do not remain intact or improve over time.

James Aloisi, a former state secretary of transportation, is a principal at Trimount Consulting and the Pemberton Square Group. He serves on the board of TransitMatters.