Calls grow to put brakes on Eastie land deal

MBTA control board to discuss easement bid on Monday

CALLS FOR STATE transportation officials to slow down the process of selling the rights to a narrow strip of land parallel to a congested East Boston roadway have found a receptive ear in the chairman of the MBTA’s oversight board, who has put the issue on the agenda for discussion at the panel’s weekly scheduled meeting on Monday.

State plans to sell rights to the dormant railroad right-of-way running alongside busy Route 1A have become the latest flashpoint for Boston area transportation policy, with two former state transportation secretaries and a powerful environmental group decrying the move as a shortsighted concession to a commercial abutter that will foreclose using the land to address vital regional transportation needs.

State officials say the concerns are misplaced and that the planned sale of easement rights would not preclude public transportation options for the land.

In a letter sent Monday to state officials, former transportation secretaries Fred Salvucci and Jim Aloisi urged the Department of Transportation and MBTA, which own the right of way, to call off the bidding process for rights to the land that runs alongside McClellan Highway in East Boston and into Revere. The president of the Conservation Law Foundation echoed their call in a letter to the same officials on Tuesday.

Selling rights to the land “is both imprudent and improper,” Salvucci and Aloisi wrote in their letter to Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, MBTA general manager Steve Poftak, and Joe Aiello, chairman of the T’s Financial Management and Control Board. They said “the public interest is unambiguously in favor of retaining all of the state’s rights in this property and putting it to use for the public in the public interest.”

Aiello said on Wednesday that he asked to have the issue added to the T control board agenda for its Monday meeting. Meanwhile, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and state Sen. Joseph Boncore, who represents East Boston and Revere and also serves as co-chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, are calling on the state to call off the bidding process until a broader transportation plan for the area is carried out.

The bidding process was set in motion when Cargo Ventures, an industrial and office firm with 14 acres of property adjacent to the right-of-way, expressed interest to state officials in acquiring rights to it in order to build a roadway that would let trucks entering and exiting its properties avoid the traffic congestion on Route 1A.

Last month, state officials issued an invitation for bids on the easement, with a deadline of July 30 and setting the minimum bid at $2.5 million.

Aloisi said the state should instead initiate a planning process to see how the land might be used for high-occupancy vehicles or as a dedicated bus lane that would promote greater public transportation use and less reliance on cars. “The idea that we’ve got worsening traffic problems with worsening air quality issues in this corridor and we’ve got the tools to solve it and we’re going to sell it for private gain rather than put it to public use is beyond belief, but that’s exactly what’s happening here,” he said.

“It begs more process,” said Gail Miller, an East Boston resident and president of Airport Impact Relief, a group that deals with Logan Airport’s impact on local communities. “It was done pretty much undercover with no real transparency,” she said of last month’s opening of the bidding process.

Cargo Ventures, an affiliate of the development company Millennium Partners, shared a PowerPoint presentation last December with some area residents that laid out plans for a roadway on the parcel running between Route 1A and Chelsea Creek. The plans also called for a shared bike and pedestrian path along the creek and construction of a seven-foot sea wall.

Scott Bosworth, the state’s undersecretary of transportation, said under the bid specifications the state maintains rights to also use the parcel, including for the sort of public transportation options Aloisi raised.

“It does have the potential for transit use,” Bosworth said of the right-of-way, “and that’s why we have protected that option going forward. If this were all to come to be,” he said of the idea of public transportation uses and the pedestrian and bicycle path, “it seems it would achieve everything the advocates are looking for.”

Jacob Citrin, the CEO of Cargo Ventures, said, “This is about starting a process where the community will inform what will happen here. That definitely seems to be getting lost.”

But Aloisi says the state is going about the whole process backwards by letting a private firm drive the process and take control of the land. “What they’re doing is basically handing the keys to all the decision-making to a for-profit, private sector interest” and then saying perhaps there’s a public use that can also be fit in. “It underscores how completely wrongheaded they’ve been about this.”

There appears to be little interest in bidding on parcel beyond Cargo Ventures, the biggest landowner adjacent to the stretch of state land. The bid invitation seems to mirror the uses the company anticipated in its December presentation.

The Conservation Law Foundation said that raises questions about whether the state’s competitive procurement regulations are being followed. Beyond that, wrote Bradley Campbell, the group’s president, in his letter this week to state officials, “the attempt to privatize this public transportation asset at the expense of the public, for the apparent benefit of a single anticipated bidder, undertaken at a moment of crisis in our regional transportation system, raises significant concerns about the judgment, priorities, and stewardship of MassDOT and the [MBTA].”

Aiello, who ordered the issue onto Monday’s MBTA control board agenda, sounds sympathetic to the calls to put the brakes on the process. “I think it’s time to do a land use and transportation analysis and see what the best possible use of this asset is,” he said.

Elected officials are issuing the same call.

“It is premature for MassDOT to designate this land before there is both a full transportation analysis on its ability to ease 1A traffic and enhance airport access for both commercial and public traffic and there is robust public process with the East Boston community and city agencies,” Walsh said in a statement.

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Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Boncore, calling the Route 1A corridor “one of the biggest chokepoints in the entire state, also urged the state to stop the procurement process until a transportation review is carried out. He said it’s possible that plans to grant a private easement will still emerge as the most viable use, “but I think we need a public process to come to that conclusion together.”

Aloisi pointed to the recent report of the Commission on the Future of Transportation, a group appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker. “The cornerstone statement of that report was you need to move more people and fewer vehicles. This invitation to bid does exactly the opposite. It doubles down on every worst instinct we have about mobility.”