Edit averts fight over Allston project
Pollack, Aiello clash over funding resolution
THE MASSACHUSETTS Department of Transportation board avoided a potentially divisive fight on Monday between several of the state’s top transportation officials by watering down a resolution on how to fund the Allston I-90 interchange project.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack pushed a resolution that stirred unusually strong pushback from Joseph Aiello, the chair of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board. Instead of developing the ideal project and then pursuing the money to fund it, the resolution appeared to call for the creation of a financing plan that could ultimately determine what kind of project is built.
The Allston I-90 interchange project would replace a crumbling elevated section of the Massachusetts Turnpike between Boston University and the Charles River; rebuild other road and rail transportation infrastructure in the area; build a new MBTA West Station; add new access roads and pedestrian and bicycle paths; and straighten the Turnpike as it moves through the area to make room for the development of a new neighborhood by Harvard University.
Pollack has spent more than four years trying to find a consensus on how to build the project and rarely has talked about how to fund it. But her resolution on Monday sharply elevated the funding issue, stating that, if the board is unable to come up with a finance plan, the state would move ahead with a so-called no-build option that would repair or replace only the crumbling elevated section of the Turnpike and leave everything else as is.
In unveiling the resolution, Scott Bosworth, the Department of Transportation’s undersecretary and chief strategy officer, called the Allston I-90 interchange a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
But he then said the state has many projects that share similar goals. “We need to be fair on how we allocate available funding,” he said. “We cannot drain the system for one particular project.”
The language of the resolution says the “finance plan must include multiple funding sources and represent a fair, stable, and equitable sharing of program costs by all users and beneficiaries of the program, including substantial value-sharing contributions from municipal, private, and education partners. And further, it is the sense of the board that unless a finance plan is created and approved by all relevant parties, the ‘No Build’ or ‘Build in Place’ option will be the preferred option that the department recommends and proceeds with.”
Value-sharing was not defined in the resolution, but it appeared to mimic the funding provided by Somerville and Cambridge to support the Green Line extension project. The Green Line project was budgeted at $2.3 billion and the two municipalities, who are expected to see tax revenues go up because of it, provided $75 million, or 3.2 percent, of the funding.
Pollack said she wasn’t sure why people were so surprised at the need for a finance plan. She said a finance plan is required if the project is going to secure state and federal funding and if a contractor is going to be hired to oversee the project. She said she did not believe “all or even most” of the project’s funding would come from value share. She also noted language in the transportation bond bill approved by the Legislature last week barred increasing Turnpike tolls to pay for the project and said existing law bars the state from borrowing money using toll revenue as collateral.
“So far, no one has stepped up to pay for the project that everyone wants,” Pollack said, without mentioning that she and the Baker administration have not pushed for funding of the project and have resisted calls for increasing transportation funding.
Betsy Taylor, the head of the MassDOT board’s finance committee, was dismissive of those raising concerns about the resolution. She noted the project cannot move forward without a finance plan.
She said she learned that lesson the hard way with the Green Line extension project into Somerville and Medford. She also disputed the contention that the resolution carries a bias toward the no-build option.
“It is not deciding what we are building,” she said. “Having said that, we actually know that tolls can be used to finance the repair of the viaduct.” Tolls cannot be used to pay for many of the project’s other features.
Aiello was blunt in his response. “The language here is unacceptable,” he said, referring to the resolution.
He said the Green Line extension was not a failure because it lacked a finance plan but because the initial project management team couldn’t control costs. The cost overruns forced a painful re-sizing of the project, which is now moving forward.
He also said value capture doesn’t work everywhere. He said it played a small role in financing the Green Line extension but wasn’t used at all in financing the $1 billion South Coast Rail project to New Bedford and Fall River. He said he was wary of its role with the Allston I-90 interchange, in part because residents of East Boston might be required to help foot the bill for a roadway they would never use.
Aiello said it is premature to pass a resolution stating what the finance plan must include even before basic facts about costs are known. “The ‘musts’ that are in here are really disturbing to me. I think they’re really premature,” he said.
Pollack responded: “Mr. chairman, you and I usually agree on most things, but I respectfully disagree. Now is the time.”
The transportation secretary said no state or federal money is on the table currently and Harvard stands to receive immense value from a repositioning of the Turnpike to make way for the development of the new neighborhood.
Robert Moylan, a member of the MassDOT board, said he shared Aiello’s concerns and suggested the word “must” in the resolution be replaced with “shall.” Aiello said he would prefer replacing “must include” with “must examine.” He also suggested adding to the possible funding options public-private partnerships.With those changes made, the MassDOT board voted 9-1 in favor of the resolution, with Chrystal Kornegay, the executive director of Mass Housing, voting against. No other members of the MassDOT board spoke on the issue.
Aiello at that point apologized because the highway project technically is a MassDOT – not an MBTA – issue. The two boards were holding a joint meeting. “I realize I stepped out of line,” Aiello said, but Pollack insisted that was not the case.