Theoharides softens stance on Charles River a bit

Says river not off-limits but incursions difficult to permit

THE STATE SECRETARY of energy and environmental affairs on Tuesday appeared to soften her stance a bit on incursions into the Charles River in connection with a massive Allston project that involves the reconstruction of transportation infrastructure on a narrow strip of land between Boston University and the river.

Katie Theoharides, appearing at a State House press conference with Gov. Charlie Baker, said she does not consider the river off-limits during and after the construction process. But, she said, incursions into the river are “much more difficult from a permitting perspective and if there are alternatives that don’t impact the river these would be preferable from an environmental standpoint.”

In a June 19 letter to Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, Theoharides was more forceful. “Any alternative that contains impacts on the Charles River, even temporary, is not only difficult to permit, but should be discounted in favor of alternatives with no temporary or permanent impact,” she wrote. “The National Environmental Policy Act selection criteria calls for avoiding projects with an ‘excessive permanent environmental impact’ and my agencies would consider any intrusion into the river excessive, especially if there are alternatives without any intrusion.”

The narrow stretch of land, dubbed the throat by many, is the most challenging part of an estimated $1 billion project to straighten the Massachusetts Turnpike in the Allston area, build a new T station, and kick off the development of a neighborhood waiting to be created by Harvard University.

The challenge in the throat area is trying to fit eight lanes of the Massachusetts Turnpike, four lanes of Soldiers Field Road, four train tracks, and bike and pedestrian paths in the narrow space.

Pollack recently launched full-scale environmental reviews of three options for the throat — rebuilding the infrastructure pretty much as is, with the elevated Turnpike bigger than it is now; putting the Turnpike at ground level and elevating Soldiers Field Road; and putting all of the transportation elements at ground level.

Given earlier statements by Theoharides, many viewed the latter two options as dead on arrival. Elevating Soldiers Field Road would require building a temporary Soldiers Field Road in the Charles for the estimated 10-year construction period. Putting all of the transportation elements at ground level would require a permanent incursion into the river to make everything fit.

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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.

Theoharides’s comments on Tuesday suggest there may be some wiggle room. And Pollack has also suggested her primary concern is permanent impacts on the Charles River. In a letter dated August 7, she said “one of our guiding principles will be to avoid long-term or permanent impact to the Charles River; indeed, to avoid all impacts if possible.”

The business group A Better City wants to avoid elevated roadways in the area. The organization has come up with a way to put all the throat transportation elements at ground level, but the group’s approach requires reducing the width of some of the roadways and also creative placement of a bike and pedestrian path along the river. Options under consideration for the bike and pedestrian path include a boardwalk in the river, a path on a rebuilt and expanded shoreline, or an elevated path along the edge of the Charles.