State embraces all-at-grade Allston project
Tesler puts focus on funding; eyes fed infrastructure bill
AFTER YEARS of indecision, the Baker administration on Wednesday took a major step to move the stalled $1.7 billion I-90 Allston project forward, embracing an all-at-grade replacement of the Turnpike, Soldiers Field Road, and commuter rail tracks as they run through a narrow strip of land sandwiched between Boston University and the Charles River.
Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler and Highway Commissioner Jonathan Gulliver said they now feel confident they can make the all-at-grade option work, and they want to shift their focus to how to fund the broader project – a straightening of the Turnpike in the Allston area to make way for a new commuter rail station and the development of a massive new neighborhood by Harvard University.
Tesler said he wants to move the project forward so it can be ready to compete for significant federal funding if an infrastructure bill is approved in Washington. He said the other potential revenue sources for the project include existing Turnpike toll revenues and funds from Harvard and the city of Boston. He did not mention state funding.
The secretary strongly hinted the infrastructure bill is the key to getting the project built. “We have thought through what’s in that bill and we see a path forward. There’s a way this works with what this bill has, so that’s what we’re trying to be ready for,” he said.
State officials were skeptical all of the transportation infrastructure could fit in the throat at ground level. Over the years they repeatedly threw up roadblocks to the at-grade option, fretting about impacts on the Charles River, the safety of the roads in the throat, and the high cost of the project. In June, however, Tesler and Gulliver adopted a different tone, indicating they wanted to see if the at-grade approach could work. On Wednesday, they said they had concluded they could make everything fit.
“We’re confident at this point,” Gulliver said.
“There is work to do. There is engineering ahead, but it is our plan to focus our resources on advancing that option,” Tesler said.
The current configuration of the throat features a crumbling elevated Turnpike with Soldiers Field Road and the commuter rail tracks at ground level. Gulliver said all of the transportation elements wouldn’t fit as is at ground level; they encroached into the Charles River by 4 feet. He said he is now convinced he can reduce the size of the transportation elements by 4 feet without eliminating or narrowing traffic lanes. He said some space will be taken from each transportation element, with the bulk of the space coming from roadway shoulders.
Gulliver also said he is confident he will be able to resolve concerns from federal regulators that the roadways are 2 feet below acceptable flood plain levels. He said he expects resolution of that issue soon, with drainage being a key factor. “It will happen sometime between now and the end of the calendar year,” he said
A combination bike and pedestrian path along the Charles will be moved out into the river. River advocates and the state secretary of energy and environmental affairs have raised concerns about any encroachment on the river, but Tesler sounded optimistic a boardwalk bike and pedestrian path would pass muster.
“Our team has been in close contact with the permitting authorities and we’re aware of some of the boundaries and we’re doing what we can to make this as viable as we can so it doesn’t encounter any unnecessary permitting risk,” he said. “We’re very cognizant of what needs to happen here and design a permittable project.”
Emily Norton of the Charles River Watershed Association said she was pleased the Baker administration went with the at-grade approach but she was disappointed the state didn’t solve the space problem by doing away with lanes on the Turnpike or Soldiers field Road. She also said the state’s plan to add considerable fill to the river bank and construct a bike and pedestrian boardwalk out in the river is not leaving the river alone.
“Construction of a boardwalk in the river is not a benign intervention,” she said, noting that the boardwalk would require 250 support piles and create 30,000 square feet of shading impacts.
Tesler said much work remains on the broader project – the straightening of the Turnpike and its relocation further south, the construction of the $180 million commuter rail station called West Station, and the design of Harvard’s new neighborhood. Gulliver said the actual construction of the road part of the project is expected to take seven years.
Tesler said many of the details of the project need to be worked out and he said he wants to learn more about Harvard’s plans. But he said the debate over the throat had been holding everything up, preventing those discussions from moving forward.
The long delay in reaching consensus on what to do in the throat area has been costly in some ways. The current elevated section of the Turnpike is in bad shape and needs to be replaced. The state last year set aside $75 million to shore it up over the next two years. If that project now moves forward next spring as planned and the Turnpike is moved to ground level, the elevated section will be retained during construction and then be torn down.
But in some ways the delay has been beneficial. The state had no funding plan for the massive project and now it is looking to the infrastructure bill pending in Congress for the money to get the work done.
Rick Dimino, president and CEO of the business group A Better City, a leading proponent of the at-grade approach, hailed the decision. “Once completed, this project will not only help transform the future of transportation in the Commonwealth, but also reconnect our urban neighborhoods to the Charles River Basin,” he said.
Several lawmakers sitting in on a Zoom briefing with members of the I-90 Allston task force applauded the decision. “I’m so glad you made a decision that aligns with the community’s hopes and wishes,” said Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont.Officials from the city of Boston were thrilled. “This is music to our ears at the city and the Boston Planning and Development Agency,” one city official said.
Fred Salvucci, the former secretary of transportation, praised officials for making the decision to go with the all-at-grade approach. “This is tremendous progress and it unlocks the potential for this project to be a really good project. This is really a good day,” he said.