Allston project could mean big commute changes
Fewer car lanes, rail tracks under consideration; Charles River option?
STATE TRANSPORTATION OFFICIALS, grappling with the tradeoffs involved in replacing a deteriorating section of the Massachusetts Turnpike in a space-constrained area near Boston University, say they are considering a number of temporary solutions, including reducing the number of Turnpike lanes, eliminating one of the two commuter rail tracks on the Worcester Line, or building a roadway out over the Charles River.
All of the options would be temporary and would be used to free up enough space for phased construction while keeping traffic flowing as the mammoth project is carried out over an 8 to 10-year period starting in the third quarter of 2022. State officials have warned that travel disruptions could be severe over that time period.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack announced in January that she intended to replace the elevated section of the Turnpike between BU and the Charles River with an at-grade highway and make room for the roadway by elevating Soldiers Field Road above it. The two tracks for the Worcester commuter rail line would also be at grade, with enough room left over for separate bike and pedestrian paths along the Charles River.
The configuration offers a lot of advantages, but state officials have made clear that it would be complicated to build. The project would require a complicated staging scenario, with the existing infrastructure taken down and replaced one section at a time, all while traffic flows in and out of the area continue. The Worcester Line handles 15,000 to 18,000 passengers a day. The Turnpike handles 150,000 cars a day and Soldiers Field Road another 50,000 to 60,000 vehicles daily.
One option considered to help alleviate some of the infrastructure juggling is to expand the available construction space by building a temporary roadway out over the Charles River to handle Soldiers Field Road traffic.
To obtain permits to expand into the footprint of the Charles River, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she would have to demonstrate to state and federal environmental officials that there are no other construction options.
“These are the tradeoffs,” she said after a meeting of the Department of Transportation and MBTA boards on Monday. “We have to move people on foot, on bicycles, on trains, on Soldiers Field Road, and on the Turnpike for as much of the construction period as we can. Now we need to start to look at the hard tradeoffs. If we work within the footprint we have, what has to give? If we give ourselves a little bit more temporary footprint by getting a temporary fill permit for the river, what does that buy us?”
Joseph Aiello, the chair of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, said he thought the state’s current staging plans prioritized roadway space over commuter rail service. He noted the current plan calls for retaining 10 lanes of roadway throughout construction while dropping to one commuter rail track for at least two years. Aiello suggested the state should instead drop to nine lanes through the construction period and maintain two commuter rail tracks.
State transportation officials say their plan to drop down to one commuter rail track for the relatively short distance between Boston Landing and Commonwealth Avenue would only cause 30-second delays on the Worcester Line.
Mary Connaughton of the Pioneer Institute testified at the board meeting and said most of the changes in lanes and commuter rail service being proposed to accommodate the phased construction schedule for the project will be very disruptive for commuters. “Once people understand what’s happening, there’s going to be enormous outcry over this,” she said.
Transportation officials said they also are considering a new design for West Station and the surrounding area – an option that combines some elements of a Harvard University proposal that had previously been panned by the state. The presentation didn’t go into detail on the new so-called “modified flip option,” but from the drawings made available it appeared to remove a buffer park, make a Cambridge Street bypass an option (rather than a firm element of the plan) dependent on financing from outside parties, and open the door to a separate track for express trains not stopping at West Station.
Pollack noted construction is not scheduled to start until 2022 – enough time to develop a comprehensive mitigation plan. “There’s time to do that work,” she said.