Finances take center stage on Allston project

If funding falls short, MassDOT eyes barebones approach

AFTER YEARS of trying to reach consensus on what to build at the Allston I-90 interchange, state transportation officials now appear to be shifting gears and planning to let finances dictate what gets constructed there.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has been struggling for most of four years to reach agreement on how to rebuild a crumbling elevated section of the Massachusetts Turnpike between Boston University and the Charles River and straighten the highway to make way for a new neighborhood proposed by Harvard University.

But just as consensus seemed to be within reach, Pollack is moving in a different direction. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation board is preparing to take up a resolution at its Monday meeting requiring that a finance plan for the estimated $1.3 billion project be developed as soon as possible and, if one fails to gain traction, the  state should abandon plans for a sweeping makeover of the area and settle for simply repairing the crumbling elevated section of the Turnpike. A repair job would cost  an estimated $445 million.

“That 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 educational partners,” the proposed resolution says. “And further it is the sense of the board that unless such 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.”

Pollack acknowledged in November that she had relatively few sources of funds to build the project — $400 to $500 million combined in Turnpike and state funding.

The resolution is vague on where the money for the project would come from, but it clearly indicates major financial contributions are expected from Harvard and Boston, and possibly other municipalities to the west of Boston whose residents would benefit from a makeover of the transportation infrastructure in the area.

Richard Dimino, president and CEO of the business group A Better City and a major proponent along with the city of Boston of building an all at-grade project along with a new MBTA station and other amenities, said there are many ways to raise the money. He mentioned borrowing against toll revenues and tapping money from a potential federal infrastructure bill.

He said he was frustrated that Pollack is taking her stand on a financing plan just as consensus has nearly been achieved on the at-grade approach. ”It seems like Stephanie Pollack and MassDOT are playing a game of moving the touchdown line,” he said.

Jim Aloisi, a member of the TransitMatters board and a former secretary of transportation himself, said the debate over the Allston I-90 interchange should be on the agenda of both the Department of Transportation board and the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board.

“Keeping it away from the Fiscal and Management Control Board is a way to diminish the transit and rail elements of the overall project,” Aloisi said in an email. “Second, this is a prelude to the secretary moving away from doing anything except a repair and patch up job, thus kicking the can for another decade or more. Third, it’s a way to turn ‘pay to play’ into official policy.”

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Politics may become a key part of the debate going forward. Senate President Karen Spilka put language in the transportation bond bill, which is sitting on the governor’s desk, that would bar higher tolls on the Turnpike to help pay for the project.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration backs an at-grade option, but with his decision to go to Washington and work in a Biden administration it’s unclear whether his replacement will adopt a similar stance, especially if the city is asked to pony up a lot of money.