More second-guessing of state’s I-90 Allston work

MassDOT board approves $86m repair contract for elevated section of Turnpike

A correction has been added to this story.

STATE TRANSPORTATION officials on Wednesday moved forward with a plan to spend nearly $86 million shoring up a crumbling elevated section of the Massachusetts Turnpike between Boston University and the Charles River before tearing it down and replacing it with a ground-level replacement.

Like previous elements of the massive I-90 Allston project, the shore-up, tear-down scheme is facing pushback, and Harvard University and transportation advocates are pushing alternative approaches that would do a lot less shoring up and more tearing down.

Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver tried to split the difference at a meeting of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s board. He urged the board members to approve a contract with J.F. White to shore up the crumbling elevated section of the Turnpike, often referred to as the viaduct, and assured them that he and his staff are reviewing the alternative approaches, which could lead to changes in that contract down the road.

It was a confusing turn of events that raises a lot of questions about which direction the state is heading in with a project designed to replace a crumbling section of the Turnpike, straighten the highway as it moves through Allston, and make way for a new MBTA station and Harvard’s development of a new neighborhood in the area. All of the infrastructure would be at ground level, which would knit together two parts of Boston that have been walled off from each other for decades by the elevated Turnpike.

Gulliver’s approach is focused on shoring up a section of the Turnpike that he suggested is becoming dangerous. His aides showed pictures of crumbling cement columns, rusting joints, and other wear and tear. The state has been spending $1 million a year  to keep the viaduct upright and safe, but Gulliver says the time for such short-term fixes is at an end. (CORRECTION: The original version of this story said the state was spending $1 million a month. It’s $1 million a year.)

The contract with J.F. White and associated spending would attempt to make the section of the Turnpike safe to carry traffic for at least another 15 years. The repair work would begin relatively soon and go on for 44 months, with most of the work taking place underneath the viaduct until April 1, 2024. He said the work on the highway itself would take place at off-peak times at night and on weekends.

The board of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation voted 7-1 to move ahead with Gulliver’s shore-up and tear-down approach, with Tim King the lone no vote.

King said he wanted to delay the vote to gather public input and hear more about the alternative approaches. “I just feel this can wait a month or two,” he said.

Gulliver cautioned against any delay. “We feel that it is in the best interest of the agency to move forward with this,” Gulliver said. “In some instances, it’s critical.”

Gulliver’s approach also buys time for the state. Funding for the project, which some estimates put at $2 billion, hasn’t been found yet. Gulliver said he is looking for money from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, but so far that hasn’t materialized.

Betsy Taylor, a veteran member of the MassDOT board, was not optimistic. “There is to date no funding for the full project,” she said.

The lack of funding is a signal to transportation advocates that the state shouldn’t spend $86 million fixing up a piece of infrastructure that is just going to be torn down. They worry that shoring up the viaduct will just give state officials the excuse they need to put the larger project off for 15 years or longer.

Gulliver didn’t go into detail about the alternative approaches presented to him recently, or who developed them. Sources said teams from Harvard and the business group A Better City independently developed the approaches, which came to remarkably similar conclusions.

Instead of spending $86 million shoring up a viaduct that will then be torn down, the two teams argued for building a new Turnpike in stages at ground level and then dismantling the crumbling sections of the viaduct as they are no longer needed.

Sources said the new approaches would reduce the amount of shoring up needed for the viaduct and get cars off the structure much sooner. The approaches, which would kickstart the overall project, would probably cost more but dispense with spending money on repairs that will be temporary.

Gulliver said the alternative approaches “have merit,” but he said the agency needs to review them closely.

He urged approval of the J. F. White repair contract, which he said could be modified, possibly significantly, depending on his agency’s review of the alternative approaches. “We think delaying [the repair work] would do more harm than good,” he said.

In the public comment period, Allston residents and transportation advocates urged the board to hold off in approving the shore-up and tear-down approach to the viaduct until it is presented formally to neighborhood and transportation stakeholders.

Fred Salvucci, the former transportation secretary, said many of the shore-up and tear-down elements of the repair work will negatively impact travelers and accomplish little. He outlined the basic principles of the alternative approaches, and said they make a lot more sense than spending $86 million over the next 3 ½ years on infrastructure that will only be torn down in six years.

Galen Mook, the executive director of MassBike, said he was worried the shore-up and tear-down approach would delay the overall project indefinitely.

“Please don’t decide to kick the can even further down the road,” he said.