Fed review of I-90 project begins with a blackout

Locals want plan for mobility through Allston during construction

RECONFIGURING THE MASSACHUSETTS TURNPIKE in Allston and building a new transit station there will create construction disruption approaching the scale required for the Big Dig, so it was either inauspicious or fitting that the first federal public comment meeting Thursday night ended early because of a power outage.

The meeting was nearing its final phase when federal officials were scheduled to hear input from members of a working group who have spent years advocating on various aspects of the project, including to prioritize neighborhood connections. But just then, the lights dimmed and then shut off completely in an auditorium at Brighton High School. An official said the entire building had lost power, and the crowd spilled outside into the rainy night.

Concepts for straightening the turnpike and developing a whole new neighborhood on an old freight yard have been in the works for years, and most importantly for many nearby residents, they also include constructing West Station along the commuter rail line to Worcester and creating stronger connections to the Charles River. The state took the first official step towards embarking on the ambitious project in 2014 during the waning days of the Patrick administration.

Now the Federal Highway Administration has taken the reins as the lead agency, and federal officials said it will undergo a more streamlined federal permitting process created by the Trump administration dubbed “one federal decision.” Thursday night opened the public comment period for the scoping portion, when the goals and the menu of big-picture options will be established. One of the top goals is to replace the structurally deficient highway overpass around where the tollbooths used to be.

Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, said in January that the configuration she prefers for fitting railways, the interstate, nearby Soldier’s Field Road and a multi-use path into a roughly 210-foot strip of land between the Charles River embankments and Boston University is putting the highway and train tracks at grade and elevating the river road. There are other options for the configuration of West Station, and a few people on Thursday said the feds should scrap the idea of using that area for train storage.

Even with the streamlined process, the final environmental impact statement, which will determine the broad outlines of the project, isn’t expected until two years from now. Only then can the final designs and permits be obtained ahead of a construction process projected to last eight years to a decade.

On Thursday night in the old high school auditorium, speakers from a few different parts of the ideological spectrum flagged that lengthy construction window as a cause for concern. Commuters can withstand a couple years of travel rigmarole and delay, but a whole decade is a different story.

Fred Salvucci, a Brighton native who was Gov. Michael Dukakis’s transportation secretary, said the plan for how people get around during the construction phase should be elevated to one of the project’s goals.

For a project as “complex” as what’s being contemplated in Allston, the management of mobility during construction takes on “much more importance than it does on many projects,” Salvucci said.

Fred Salvucci addressed a meeting convened by the Federal Highway Administration at Brighton High School on Nov. 7, 2019. (Photo by Andy Metzger)

Mary Connaughton, a former Mass Turnpike board member and top official at the Pioneer Institute, zeroed in on the same issue, pushing project administrators to identify the “construction duration period for each of the alternatives” as well as their cost.

“The Allston project is similar to the Big Dig in terms of the transformative effect it will have on the city,” Connaughton said in an email after the meeting. “The problem, like with that megaproject, is going to be maintaining traffic flow during construction. Commuters from the west are in for significant disruption for a decade or more.”

Henrietta Davis, a former mayor of Cambridge who attended the meeting, said she will ask that the scope of the project include plans to keep people moving during the lengthy construction period.

“It’s such a huge impact during construction, and none of those impacts have been considered yet in any kind of formal way,” Davis said in an interview after the meeting. “It’s huge and the amount of money that’s involved is staggering.”

Salvucci was also dismissive of the idea of using some of the developable area to store commuter trains, saying that would impede the other project goals. His was not the only criticism.

This week, advocates for preservation of the Charles River objected to the state’s plans to route Soldiers Field Road over the river for several years during the construction.

At the meeting, Pallavi Mande, director of watershed resilience for the Charles River Watershed Association, told federal officials that putting a road over the Charles for years would be a “huge imposition into the river.”

Davis had a different take. Her big complaint about that was that the structure would be temporary for the roughly decade-long construction phase.

“It shouldn’t just be a throwaway. If you were doing your own house and you built something for 10 years, would you think you’d throw it away at the end? No,” said Davis, who was dismissive of the idea that the riverbanks created by landfill should be left untouched. “Protecting this river edge? We made it. Maybe we can make it better.”

Jessica Robertson, who tried to talk to the federal highway officials after the lights went out, said the federal highway department was holding too few public meetings for “such a complex project,” and suggested the federal officials should participate with a task force that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation assembled to weigh in on the project.

“The idea that [the Federal Highway Administration] wouldn’t want to participate in the task force process and gain the benefit of all of the collective knowledge of all of these people who have been thinking about this project for the last five years is just crazy to me,” said Robertson, who is a member of that task force.

After the room went dark before everyone had cleared out of the building, Robertson asked the two environmental protection specialists from Federal Highway whether they would participate in future task force meetings, and one of them said no.

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

There will be another public comment meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 4, in Framingham.