State: No West Station until 2040

Advocates say 20 years is too long to wait

A STATE TRANSPORTATION FILING prompted a chicken-and-egg debate on Friday about whether a new transit station should be constructed in conjunction with the new neighborhood Harvard University is building in Allston or whether the station can wait until 2040.

In a mammoth filing with state environmental officials on the complex and sprawling project, the Department of Transportation said it first intends to realign the Massachusetts Turnpike and rebuild a deteriorating, elevated stretch of the Pike adjacent to Boston University before moving on to construct what has come to be known as West Station.

The filing said state transportation officials forecast little demand for commuter rail services in the area until Harvard completes the buildout of the new neighborhood. In the meantime, the state plans to store commuter rail trains overnight on four existing tracks in the area starting in 2025. After 2025 and sometime before 2040, the environmental filing said, the state plans to add four more layover tracks to the north of the existing tracks. In 2040, the officials said, they plan to remove the original tracks “to allow for the construction of West Station” in their place.

The state’s decision on West Station set off a spirited discussion, mostly on social media, about whether it’s best to build out a neighborhood and then add a transportation component or whether the two have to go hand in hand.

Jim Aloisi, a member of the board of TransitMatters and a former state secretary of transportation, said transit-oriented development doesn’t happen without transit. He said waiting 20 years before addressing the emerging neighborhood’s transportation needs is senseless.

“It’s completely wrongheaded,” he said. “This site should be built around transit.”

Patrick Marvin, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, issued a statement explaining the agency’s thinking. “Before new jobs and new residents arrive in the immediate vicinity of a future station, travel demand for the proposed West Station is unknown.  Data collected for the DEIR [Draft Environmental Impact Report] indicate that the station is not needed to mitigate the traffic impacts of the Interchange Improvement Project [the realignment of the Pike and replacement of the deteriorating section of the road].  The Allston neighborhood is today served by a new MBTA commuter rail station at Boston Landing and MBTA bus routes 64, 66, and 86.”

Harvard, which has offered to provide some of the funding for West Station, declined to weigh in on the debate. “Certainly MassDOT needs to consider demand as they assess timing for West Station,” said a statement issued by a Harvard spokeswoman. “West Station has always been an important priority for Harvard. We look forward to continuing discussions through the comment period and beyond about implementation and timing.”

Harvard likes to think of its emerging Allston neighborhood in two parts – Allston North, just south of Harvard Business School and between Western Avenue and Cambridge Street, and Allston South, the area extending from Cambridge Street south to where the relocated Turnpike will be located near Boston University.

Harvard on Wednesday night rolled out to neighborhood residents what was essentially a vision statement for the 36-acre Allston North, with a few extra specifics on 14 acres within that area. Harvard is tentatively planning a hotel and conference center, a residential apartment complex, and two lab/office buildings on the property.

Harvard has said little so far about its plans for Allston South, but the state is eager to get moving on the transportation components in that area, in part because of concerns about the elevated section of the Turnpike. The state is spending $800,000 a year just shoring up the elevated section. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack wants to begin replacing that section in 2020 and complete the work by 2024 or 2025, otherwise weight restrictions may be necessary for vehicles traveling on the road.

In its environmental filing, the Transportation Department described West Station as “a local, neighborhood-oriented station serving customers (riders) who reside within a reasonable walking distance from the station location. These residents will be expected to use the new station for travel to Back Bay (to work or shop), South Station (Financial District, South Boston Innovation District), Logan Airport (via Silver Line connection), or Yawkey (Fenway events).”

The proposed West Station commuter rail stop, which will also be a bus terminal, would be located between Yawkey and Boston Landing.

Officials say the 2040 target date for West Station construction is far from final. Public input on the project will go on for some time and a lot of variables remain up in the air. Some officials suggest a compromise on West Station is possible, with one option being the installation of a simple, temporary  commuter rail platform at the site until construction of the entire station is completed.

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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.

The exact location of the station may also need to change slightly as Harvard fleshes out its plans for Allston South and hires developers who may be interested in the air rights above the proposed station.

Maps included in the state’s environmental filing indicate a strong emphasis on providing bicycle and pedestrian pathways over the Turnpike and train tracks near West Station that would allow people to move back and forth between neighborhoods that have long been cut off from each other.