MassDOT spreadsheet on throat options raises questions
Dimino says chart is full of bias and inaccuracies
A 15-page state Department of Transportation spreadsheet comparing the four options for rebuilding the roads and rail lines in the narrow throat section of the I-90 Allston interchange appears to suggest the best option would be to reconstruct the infrastructure pretty much as it is laid out right now.
The spreadsheet, dated October 1 and posted on the MassDOT website Friday evening, indicates rebuilding the infrastructure with an elevated Massachusetts Turnpike would be the simplest and cheapest to construct, the most resilient to flooding and storm surge, and cause the least impact on the Charles River. The spreadsheet is labeled “pre-decisional and deliberative.”
Rick Dimino, the president and CEO of the business group A Better City, which, along with the city of Boston, favors putting all of the transportation infrastructure in the throat at ground level, said the spreadsheet is filled with bias and inaccuracies. Dimino said the spreadsheet raises questions about MassDOT’s impartiality during the review process and he predicted stakeholders would balk at its conclusions.
“They’re going to hear loud and clear from my organization and from a wide range of stakeholders that this is another step backwards,” he said.
The throat work is part of a broader project to straighten the Turnpike and move it south to make way for a new neighborhood being developed by Harvard University. The first step in moving ahead is selecting a preferred alternative for rebuilding the throat section of the project.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack thought she had the preferred alternative in January 2019, when she sided with a team of consultants who suggested putting the Turnpike at ground level and elevating Soldiers Field Road into the air. When Pollack made that decision, she ruled out trying to put all of the transportation elements at ground level because she felt there wasn’t enough room and trying to fit everything in would require encroaching on the Charles River. “MassDOT should not put highways into parks (or rivers) where there is an alternative,” she said in her decision letter.
Pollack at that time also said rebuilding all the infrastructure in place, with the Turnpike elevated, would be easier, take less time, and be less disruptive. But she wrote that those positives did not outweigh “the fact that the highway viaduct option fails to address long-standing concerns that the I-90 Viaduct stands as a barrier between the Allston community and the Charles River and is inconsistent with MassDOT’s attempts, where possible, to construct infrastructure that is less obtrusive.”
But her preferred approach ran into problems when it was discovered that building it would require the erection of a temporary Soldiers Field Road on a trestle in the Charles River during construction. Opposition was so strong that Pollack backed away from the proposal and went back to the drawing board.
In June, she attempted to kickstart the process again, focusing on basically the same three options – one with an elevated Turnpike, one with an elevated Soldiers Field Road, and one with all of the elements at ground level. Just last week she agreed to a new version of the at-grade proposal put forward by the city of Boston and A Better City that squeezed everything in except the bike and pedestrian path, which would run on a boardwalk in the Charles River through the throat area.
Dimino said MassDOT officials told him they believed the ground-level approach could be built and permitted, despite the incursion into the Charles River. A spokeswoman for Pollack, who declined to comment earlier in the week, said on Friday night that the transportation secretary was uncertain whether the at-grade approach could be permitted.
“I’m going to stand by what I’ve been told, that it’s buildable and permittable,” said Dimino on Saturday.
Dimino said MassDOT has two consulting reports saying building the transportation elements at grade would be cheaper than building them in the air. Some analysts have also suggested that a maintenance facility on the south side of the commuter rail system may be needed anyway because of the expansion of the commuter rail system to Fall River and New Bedford.
The spreadsheet says the at-grade option would require 13 construction stages, eight more than what the elevated Turnpike option would require. Dimino said his organization’s research indicates the at-grade option requires only five construction stages.
The spreadsheet says the elevated Turnpike option would be more resilient to storm surge, have far less impact on the Charles River and its users, and create a similar amount of park space. The elevated Turnpike and at-grade options would both take roughly about 6 ½ years to build, while the elevated Soldiers Field Road option would take 8 to 10 years, according to the spreadsheet.Dimino said A Better City will need time to go through all of the spreadsheet conclusions.
Pollack in June warned that if she and stakeholders are unable to come to a consensus on how to deal with the throat she could opt for a so-called no-build option, which would rebuild the elevated Turnpike and forego the rest of the project, including a new T station and the straightening of the Turnpike. The spreadsheet estimates the cost of the no-build option at $445 million.