Harvard raises concerns on ‘no-build’ Allston option

Official points out university’s already-significant investment

A TOP OFFICIAL at Harvard University sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack last week raising concerns about the state’s growing interest in just patching the crumbling elevated section of the Massachusetts Turnpike between Boston University and the Charles River and putting off action on the broader I-90 Allston interchange project.

The letter, written by Harvard’s executive vice president Katherine Lapp, was mailed last Tuesday, eight days after Pollack and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board approved a resolution suggesting the broader project may not go forward unless Harvard and the city of Boston make a “substantial” in the broader $1 billion-plus initiative.

The broader project would replace the crumbling elevated section of the Massachusetts Turnpike between BU and the Charles; 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 research-oriented neighborhood by Harvard.

Lapp said Harvard continues to view the project as a public-private partnership, but she said the resolution debated by the MassDOT board failed to take into account the significant investments Harvard has already made in the project.

She noted Harvard paid $227 million to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority in 2000 and 2003 for two key parcels of land in Allston. She noted Harvard was the Turnpike’s only bidder on the land, and the money was used to complete the Central Artery project.

She also noted Harvard acquired the CSX Transportation railyard in the area and purchased another rail spur, both of which allowed the Worcester commuter rail line to begin operating with two tracks. She said Harvard also has committed $58 million to the construction of West Station and provided three acres of parkland to the state for the Paul Dudley White bicycle path.

“The project represents a multi-generational, transformational opportunity to create a western transportation gateway into Boston that will benefit the entire region,” Lapp said in her letter. “Before the project can unlock any development opportunities, however, Harvard will need to make additional significant investment in terms of infrastructure and utilities, including decking and the Cambridge Street Bypass for air rights development over the highway and rail yard. All told, it will be over 30 years from Harvard’s initial investment to purchase the land from the Commonwealth before development potential in the area may be realized.”

Lapp dismissed the debate among state transportation officials on whether to build the broader project, using one of three options, or pursue what is being called a “no-build” approach, which would entail patching the crumbling elevated section of the Turnpike and leaving the rest of the project for later. Resurrecting quotes from past studies done by the state, Lapp said the no-build option would not meet the safety and transportation priorities set out by the state.

“Moreover, the no-build option is neither a ‘no disruption,’ nor a ‘no-cost’ option,” she said. “The disruption to Turnpike drivers and commuter rail riders during the construction period for repairing the viaduct is likely to be extensive. The no-build approach would leave Allston divided in two, rather than rejoining neighborhoods. And the no-build option will cost hundreds of millions of dollars for a temporary fix without addressing the real need to improve the major emergency egress route for the city of Boston, as well as to create a needed western transportation gateway into the city.”

Lapp said a public consensus has emerged in support of replacing the elevated section of the Turnpike and other transportation infrastructure in the area with an all at-grade approach, which would unlock major regional and local economic benefits.

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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.

Given all that, Lapp said, “we are troubled that the no-build option continues to be considered as an alternative, and worse, presented as a viable fallback option.”

Pollack, who is leaving Tuesday to take the No. 2 job at the Federal Highway Administration, has said the state currently lacks the funds to do a $1 billion project. Lapp, even before Pollack’s new appointment was announced, urged the transportation secretary to use Harvard’s “significant contributions” as a platform to leverage federal funding for the project.

“The project has credible private partners and, in our view, fits perfectly into the multi-modal, public-private partnership, innovative transit-oriented development themes that federal financing programs favor,” Lapp wrote.