On Allston project, tone changes but challenges remain

Highway official vows to work with advocates on all-at-grade approach

STATE TRANSPORTATION officials sounded a more optimistic tone Thursday night about reaching a consensus on a design for the Allston I-90 interchange project, but they continued to insist on options that made reaching an agreement difficult.

At a meeting with the Allston I-90 task force, the officials indicated they wanted to collaborate with advocates to find a way to rebuild the Massachusetts Turnpike, Soldiers Field Road, and several railroad tracks at ground level in the narrow section of land dubbed the throat between Boston University and the Charles River.

The all-at-grade option is favored by the city of Boston, Harvard University, and most advocates, but under former transportation secretary Stephanie Pollack the Department of Transportation always acted as if it was unattainable. She raised concerns about intrusions into the Charles River and the extra cost of building a $300 million MBTA commuter rail maintenance facility south of the Turnpike.

On Thursday night, however, state Highway Commissioner Jonathan Gulliver indicated the agency is now focused on working with the advocates to make the all-at-grade option work.  He said a final decision on how to proceed on the project will be delayed, probably until late this year, but he insisted the project is moving forward.

Unlike Pollack, Gulliver didn’t take a hands-off attitude in regard to the Charles River and said the MBTA’s plan to build a commuter rail maintenance facility in the Readville section of Boston eliminated a potential obstacle to the project. Michael O’Dowd, the I-90 Allston project manager, indicated the T believes it needs the maintenance facility regardless of what happens with the Turnpike.

Despite his overall positive tone, Gulliver insisted on several features of the project that are likely to make finding consensus difficult. He said the current design calls for putting the Turnpike, which is currently elevated, at ground level along with the rail tracks and Soldiers Field road. A bike and pedestrian path would be located just offshore in the Charles River.

With that design, Gulliver said, the roadway would extend 4 feet out into the river, which he said he wants to avoid.  He made it more difficult to find that 4 feet by rejecting calls for reducing the number of Turnpike lanes below eight, as some advocates have suggested, or narrowing the width of the lanes on Soldiers Field Road from 11 to 10 feet. He also said the current all-at-grade design has the roadways 2 feet below acceptable flood plain levels, which wouldn’t pass muster with federal regulators unless an exception is granted, which he said was unlikely.

Ari Ofsevit, a senior associate at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy,  pointed out that the policies of the Department of Conservation and Recreation, which oversees Soldiers Field Road, call for parkways with lanes that are 10 feet wide. By reducing the width of lanes on Soldiers Field Road from 11 feet to 10, he said,  “there very well may be 4 feet there for the taking.”

O’Dowd said DCR is insisting it wants lanes that are 11 feet wide, but offered no explanation why. Ofsevit urged the lawmakers listening to the presentation to pressure DCR to comply with the agency’s own guidelines.

Emily Norton, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association and the chief advocate of making space for all the new transportation infrastructure by reducing the number of Turnpike lanes from eight to seven or six, said the Department of Transportation should conduct a study to determine whether eight lanes are really necessary in the wake of the pandemic.

“It’s not something we’re looking to pursue,” Gulliver said of reducing the number of Turnpike lanes. “We continue to view it as one of the fixed parameters of the project.”

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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.

Fred Salvucci, a former state transportation secretary, urged Gulliver not to adhere to federal flood plain standards too closely. He said the roadway in the area hits its lowest point going beneath the BU Bridge and remains below the flood plain level in the tunnel under the Prudential Center. Given that the Charles River is dam-controlled, he said, some leeway is needed.

“It cannot be an absolute in the real world,” he said of the flood plain requirements.

Salvucci also said the Department of Transportation may be able to find some more space by borrowing more land from Boston University. He said BU has already granted the use of 7 feet and could possibly spare more. “There’s a little more wiggle room there,” he said.