Two experts debate tunneling under Charles River

As state transportation officials prepare to replace the elevated section of the Massachusetts Turnpike that runs between Boston University and the Charles River, they are facing an age-old problem – whether to strive for the absolute best approach or whether to pursue what’s best under the circumstances.

The challenge, and the tradeoffs involved, were explored on the Codcast by two transportation experts  who are well aware of the high stakes involved – Antonio Di Mambro, a visionary architect and planner, and Glen Berkowitz, project manager at A Better City.

Both Di Mambro and Berkowitz recently submitted comments to the state on the current plan for the Turnpike project, which calls for replacing the elevated portion of the highway, which is 60 years old and falling down, and addressing a host of transportation issues in the Allston I-90 area.

The state’s current plan is to put the Turnpike, two railroad lines, and a pedestrian and bike path at ground level and run Soldiers Field Road above. After years of insisting the Charles River should not be touched during construction, state officials have also concluded that they need to temporarily run Soldiers Field Road and the bike and pedestrian path out over the Charles River during the estimated 10-year construction period.

The potential impact on commuters of this project could be immense. During construction, the Turnpike will have six lanes instead of eight and the Worcester commuter rail line may be periodically reduced to one track in the area.

State officials also plan to shut down for most of the construction period a little-used rail line called the Grand Junction, which is currently used to move MBTA equipment from the south side of the commuter rail system to the north side but is viewed as a potential commuter rail line of the future connecting areas west of Boston to Kendall Square and North Station.

The Grand Junction line currently runs underneath the Turnpike and then travels over the Charles River and into Cambridge on a railroad bridge that runs beneath the BU Bridge. The state’s current plan is to build a new Grand Junction connection over the rebuilt Turnpike and then replace most of the bridge infrastructure at the end of the construction period.

Di Mambro’s big idea is to build a tunnel for the Grand Junction line running underneath the Charles River and convert the line to commuter rail use as soon as possible to help ease congestion during the 10 years of construction. Di Mambro’s approach would free up 25 feet of space in the narrow construction zone along the river and permit the elimination of the ugly railroad bridge over the river.

“Why not analyze it?” he asks. “Once we make a final decision, it’s very difficult to go back.”

Berkowitz is clearly intrigued by Di Mambro’s idea, but he’s not sure whether it’s the right time to try it. There are a lot of obstacles. For trains to run through the tunnel they would have to be electrified, and the T is just starting to consider electrification. He’s also not sure whether the surface-level Grand Junction track in Cambridge, with five street crossings, is ready to carry passengers. And then there’s the pressing need to replace the elevated section of the Turnpike.

“It’s falling apart,” he said. “The state has made it clear that at some point pretty soon that viaduct is no longer going to be able to carry heavy trucks and other vehicles that are critically important to the Boston economy.”

Berkowitz says it may make more sense to design the project so a Grand Junction rail tunnel could be built sometime in the future without delaying the replacement of the elevated highway that is needed now.  “We think one of the most important things to do is focus less on trying to get this perfect and more on trying to get it really good, and get it done in time so that we keep these important infrastructure systems in place,” he said.

Di Mambro is not swayed. “I appreciate Glen’s realistic, pragmatic approach that we should get this project done as soon as possible. I think, however, we need to think about the future. We may end up doing exactly what you say, Glen, but that does not mean in the environmental process we should not look, analyze, and do the economic forecast of the needs of this region to see if this idea of going with a tunnel under the river makes sense. My hunch is that it most likely will make sense if you look at what this region needs 50 years from now.”

Di Mambro said it can take 40 years to build good infrastructure. “We cannot rush this planning phase in order to get this project done,” he said.

Berkowitz said there have been hundreds of task force meetings over the last five years to come to a consensus on a good design. “I don’t mean to sound like a state employee here, but the truth is this process has been going on for a very long time at a very deep and concerted level and MassDOT deserves credit, not criticism, for how much planning it has done to date for this project,” Berkowitz said. “So I just want to be clear with folks that I don’t think any idea that came on to the table three weeks ago should be viewed in the light of, well gee, the process just started, let’s not discard that idea before we move ahead. The process has been going on for quite a long time and I believe Antonio himself would admit that his recent comment — again, no matter how good or genius it may be, and he’s known for coming up with good, genius ideas, … — it’s sort of at the eleventh hour.”

Berkowitz and his colleagues at A Better City do have their own tweak to the existing state plan. Since the state feels it needs to build roadways into the river temporarily, why not make a permanent incursion into the river, they ask, enough to put the entire project at grade and do away with the elevated Soldiers Field Road.

Berkowitz’s biggest concern is speed. “If I were the state, I would be hyper-focused on the fact that the existing viaduct is crumbling and needs to be replaced,” he said. “If we can do things that Antonio is thinking of and not delay that construction, that’s one thing. If it would delay construction by 20 to 30 years, that would be a completely different thing.”



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