Getting to yes on the throat

There are moves afoot, but it won’t be easy

The push is on – again – for a unifying plan to reconstruct all of the transportation infrastructure packed into a narrow stretch of land between Boston University and the Charles River.

That stretch of land, dubbed the throat because it is a choke point, is the most challenging part of an estimated $1 billion project to straighten the Massachusetts Turnpike in the area, build a new T station, and kick off the development of a neighborhood waiting to be created by Harvard University in Allston.

The problem is space; there’s just not enough of it in that narrow stretch of land. And getting everyone to agree on how to squeeze in eight lanes of the Turnpike, four lanes of Soldiers Field Road, four train tracks, and bike and pedestrian paths without any of the elements spilling into the Charles River has been an exercise in frustration.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack recently decided to launch full-scale environmental reviews of three options – rebuilding the infrastructure pretty much as is, with the elevated Turnpike bigger than it is now; putting the Turnpike at ground level and elevating Soldiers Field Road; and putting all of the transportation elements at ground level.

Pollack warned that if agreement can’t be reached on one of the alternatives, she would consider abandoning the entire project and just rehabilitating the existing elevated Turnpike, which is crumbling and nearing its end date.  “We simply cannot allow the current state of the viaduct to continue as is without an end in sight,” Pollack said.

On Sunday, the Boston Globe ran a full-page editorial urging all parties to come together in a kumbaya moment. The editorial only half-jokingly urged them “to see a counselor or step back and look at the bigger picture.”

Rick Dimino, president and CEO of the business group A Better City, issued a statement on Monday welcoming the sentiment of the Globe editorial while insisting his organization would remain tenacious in pursuing an approach that does away with elevated roadways walling off the Charles River from the surrounding area. He wants all of the transportation elements at ground level, and believes he has a plan to do it without damaging the Charles River. His statement suggested Boston Mayor Marty Walsh is in his corner.

Emily Norton, a Newton city councilor and executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, likes the idea of putting everything at ground level, but she doesn’t want any incursions into the Charles River. She says the best way to avoid that is to do away with some of the lanes on the Turnpike and Soldiers Field Road, which she believes can be done in the wake of the COVID-induced work-from-home phenomenon. Asked on Monday if her position has changed, she replied: “Nope.”

Pollack likes to portray herself as the grown-up in the room, the official trying to reach consensus among advocates who can never seem to get on the same page. But the truth is she keeps shooting herself in the foot.

When there was growing consensus on building an elevated Soldiers Field Road, she pulled the rug out from under the proposal by saying, belatedly, the only way to do that would be by putting a temporary Soldiers Field Road in the Charles River for most of a decade. The state’s project manager said advocates were on board with putting a road in the Charles when they weren’t.

Meet the Author

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.

More recently, Pollack enlisted Katie Theoharides, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs, to opine on incursions into the Charles River even before agencies under her control had been given any fleshed-out proposals. “My agencies would consider any intrusion into the river excessive, especially if there are alternatives without any intrusion,” said Theoharides, whose comment outraged Dimino.

Even though Theoharides’s statement would appear to knock out two of Pollack’s three options for the throat, the transportation secretary is pushing ahead, exploring whether what has been said can be walked back.