T notes: Allston I-90 throat consensus seems very iffy

Huge outpouring of opposition to service cuts at the MBTA

TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY Stephanie Pollack has warned that the $1 billion I-90 Allston interchange could be scaled back dramatically if stakeholders are unable to reach consensus on how to rebuild the infrastructure in the narrow throat section of the project. On Monday, it seemed like that’s where the project was headed.

At a meeting of the Department of Transportation and MBTA oversight boards, stakeholder after stakeholder voiced support for rebuilding all of the infrastructure at ground level, while a DOT analysis seemed to favor replacing all of the elements pretty much as is – with the Massachusetts Turnpike elevated in the air and Soldiers Field Road, four rail tracks, and a bike and pedestrian path at ground level.

The throat is a narrow section of the project that runs between Boston University and the Charles River. The current elevated section of the Turnpike there is in such bad shape that the state is spending $1 million a year to keep it upright.

After five years of debate about how to rebuild the throat section, including several twists and turns by Pollack herself, the secretary says that if no consensus is forthcoming soon she will  just rebuild the elevated section of the Turnpike and forget about the rest of the project – a straightening of the Turnpike, a new MBTA station, and all of the road connections needed to support a new neighborhood that Harvard University intends to build.

Richard Dimino, president of the business group A Better City and one of the chief advocates of building all of the throat infrastructure at ground level, said he didn’t know how state officials could proceed with any other option given that the city of Boston, the host city for the project, wants the at-grade approach.

Fred Salvucci, the former secretary of transportation, also favors the at-grade approach. He said Pollack rejected elevating the Turnpike previously and she should do so again. “It failed then and it still fails now,” he said.

Harry Mattison, an Allston resident, criticized Pollack and her staff for refusing to provide all of the information referenced in the DOT analysis. “This obstruction should have no place in your organization,” he said. “It is like throwing sand in the umpire’s face, preventing citizens from providing the feedback that you tell us you want.”

And Ari Ofsevit, affiliated with the Livable Streets Alliance, criticized the Department of Transportation for once again pushing for a rebuilt elevated Turnpike viaduct even though that approach would be more expensive and more disruptive than the “superior” at-grade alternative.

“Despite all logic, the state’s evaluation criteria are skewed dramatically toward the viaduct,” Ofsevit said.

Yet when it came time for Pollack to brief board members on the project, she and her aide Mike O’Dowd gave no ground. Pollack stressed that she is giving stakeholders more information and allowing for more public input than is required under law.

O’Dowd went through a spreadsheet comparing the three rebuild alternatives and the elevated Turnpike option came out ahead in nearly every category. According to the spreadsheet, the elevated Turnpike approach is the simplest and cheapest to construct, the most resilient to flooding and storm surge, and it will cause the least impact on the Charles River.

Technically, the two approaches would cost the same to build, but Pollack, with an assist from Steve Poftak, the general manager of the T, said the all-at-grade approach would end up costing $300 million more because it would require the cash-strapped T to build a maintenance facility on the south side of the commuter rail system. The maintenance facility would not be needed for the elevated Turnpike option because that approach wouldn’t require the shutdown of a rail link to a repair facility on the north side of the commuter rail system.

Both sides in this game of chicken are playing for keeps. The opponents of rebuilding the transportation infrastructure as is say it would be a waste of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get rid of a viaduct that walls off off the area around BU from the Charles River. But Pollack holds what is perhaps the trump card, the threat of just rebuilding the viaduct and nothing more. For a transportation secretary with no funding source for the project, the $440 million price tag for the bare-bones approach may sound pretty good.

Lots of opposition to T service cutbacks

 More than 400 emails and 124 voicemails were submitted to the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board on Monday opposing service cuts to deal with a looming budget shortfall next year.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh submitted a video message that urged the board to avoid cuts and to press for additional federal funding.

Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone had a similar message, warning that services cut next year will be difficult to bring back the following year.

The control board dispensed with reading or listening to all of the comments during the board meeting, but promised all of the information would be made available to each member.

Joseph Aiello, the chair of the control board, said most of the comments dealt with expected cuts to ferry and commuter rail service, where riders have been scarce since the arrival of COVID-19 and suburbanites began working from home.

A voicemail from Michelle O’Leary, a nurse at Massachusetts General Hospital, said she commutes five days a week from her home in Hull to the hospital. She said many other healthcare workers join her most days. “It is essential for our healthcare workers,” she said of the ferry service to Boston.

Tibbits-Nutt criticizes MBTA diversity efforts

The general manager of the MBTA on Monday outlined what the transit authority is doing to increase diversity, but the vice chair of the Fiscal and Management Control Board said a new approach is needed.

Steve Poftak, the general manager, said a working group has been set up, training is being conducted, and Julian Tynes has been named chief diversity officer.

Monica Tibbits-Nuttm, the vice chair of the control board, said the diversity numbers presented on Monday seemed to be no different from what they were last year.

Meet the Author

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 think the process is clearly broke,” she said, urging Poftak and the T to bring in outside expertise and to make dramatic changes in the way minorities are recruited to the authority and encouraged to stay.

“As a black person, this agency does not seem particularly friendly to me,” she said.