Spilka scores victory on I-90 Allston project

Baker administration says tolls will not go up to pay for it

SENATE PRESIDENT Karen Spilka took a tour several weeks ago of the aging transportation infrastructure the state is looking to replace in the Allston area.

She walked underneath the badly deteriorated elevated section of the Massachusetts Turnpike. She inspected the commuter rail tracks and Soldiers Field Road and got a sense of how much stuff the state was trying to cram into a narrow section of land between Boston University and the Charles River that has come to be known as the throat.

“You see firsthand how tight it is,” Spilka said.

At the time of the tour, hosted by Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler, the Baker administration had not made any decision about how to replace all those roads and tracks. At the conclusion of the tour, Spilka remembers being a bit agnostic on what repair approach should be adopted. “I’m not an engineer,” she said.

But Spilka said she was very clear with Tesler that she would not allow Turnpike tolls paid by her constituents from west of Boston to go up to pay for whatever repair approach was selected. Spilka said she has been very clear on that issue with Tesler’s predecessor, Stephanie Pollack, and with the governor himself.

On Wednesday last week, Tesler said he was moving ahead with an ambitious $1.7 billion plan to replace all the transportation elements in the throat at ground level and straighten the Turnpike to make room for a new neighborhood being built by Harvard University. He said the project will most likely be paid for with money from Harvard University, the city of Boston, potential funds from a massive infrastructure bill pending somewhat precariously in Washington, and existing toll revenue. Tesler said emphatically that tolls would not be increased to help pay for the project.

“Music to my ears,” said Spilka on Monday following a meeting with Gov. Charlie Baker and House Speaker Ronald Mariano. “I’m thrilled that there’s the recognition within the administration on this issue of fairness and that tolls will not be increased to pay for this project.”

There are few issues Spilka is more passionate about than tolls. She believes tolls are incredibly unfair to her constituents west of Boston. If they are such a great way to maintain a roadway, she said, then the principle should be extended more broadly across the state so the pain is shared. In the meantime, she wasn’t going to stand for hiking tolls any higher.

“It’s not fair to have it just on one major road,” she said.

Spilka inserted language into a transportation bond bill during the last legislative session that would have barred any increase in tolls to pay for the Allston project. That section of the bill (6720-2127) was vetoed by Baker and failed to become law with the session expiring.

Baker indicated on Monday he had no plans to raise tolls to pay for the project, and suggested it never came up in discussions with Spilka.

“I never had a conversation of any significance with the Senate President on that issue,” he said.

Spilka, in a subsequent telephone interview, said she has been very clear in stating her position.

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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.

“I have not been shy or quiet about this,” she said. “It’s something that I believe I have very clearly articulated to the governor and the administration.”

Now she says she will be focusing on the next steps, making sure that two commuter rail tracks remain open at all times throughout the 6 to 10 years expected for construction and that plenty of mitigation is provided to help Pike users navigate the construction work.