Advocates split on roadway in the Charles River
Transportation groups urge prioritization of rail service
TRANSPORTATION, ENVIRONMENTAL, and Charles River advocates seemed split Monday on whether an elevated section of the Massachusetts Turnpike along with other roadways and rail tracks tucked between Boston University and the Charles River can be rebuilt without placing some of the infrastructure in the Charles River for at least the decade-long construction period.
State transportation officials are currently reviewing close to 1,600 comments on their proposal to run a section of Soldiers Field Road out over the Charles River to make enough room for phased reconstruction of the eight-lane Turnpike at ground level, the reconfiguration of four existing rail tracks, the elevation of Soldiers Field Road over the Pike, and the relocation of sewer, water, and utility infrastructure.
Testifying before a joint meeting of the two boards overseeing the state Transportation Department and the MBTA, officials from the Charles River Watershed Association and a number of environmental groups urged a hands-off approach to the river during the Allston I-90 construction project.
Heather Miller, general counsel of the association, said it was not acceptable to view the Charles River as an “expendable resource” for the 10-year construction period. Tom Powers, a member of the association and former deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, said he and his staff at the DEP went through 26 designs for how to cross the Charles River during the Big Dig. He said patience paid off with the state eventually settling on the design of the Zakim Bridge. Powers urged the boards to take the same patient approach now.
Staci Rubin, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation, said a better alternative for creating construction space would be to pare back the total number of lanes on the Turnpike in the area between BU and the Charles River from eight to seven or even six. She said traffic data indicates the Pike needs only three lanes going west and possibly only three in each direction.
Other advocates, including the Pioneer Institute and the business group A Better City, said state transportation officials should attempt to figure out a way to build the entire project at grade, with a small portion of the project extending permanently into the Charles River.
Transportation advocates put less emphasis on the potential impacts on the Charles River and more on making sure commuter rail service on the Worcester Line is not cut to just one track during half of the 10-year construction period, as state officials have proposed. Having one track could mean that incoming trains would have to pull over and wait if an outgoing train was coming on the single track.
Transportation advocate Ari Ofsevit said state transportation officials should expand train service during the construction period to help ease congestion in the area.
Fred Salvucci, who teaches at MIT and is a former secretary of transportation, said the Allston project should be viewed as a way to quickly implement more subway-like commuter rail service. Salvucci, who oversaw the Big Dig, said the more frequent service should be designed into the project as a form of traffic mitigation and be paid for with capital funds.
Salvucci said reducing the Worcester Line to one track during parts of the construction period would result in a congestion nightmare. He also said an all at-grade project might be able to guarantee two Worcester Line tracks for the duration of the construction period.“I do not believe this project can be built without being in the water a part of the time,” he said.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she and her staff are still sorting through the comments her agency has received. She said the comments are being take very seriously but no decisions have been reached on whether to alter the project or not. Pollack also announced that Mike O’Dowd, the state manager for the Allston I-90 project, is being shifted to a new assignment once a replacement for him is found.