Theoharides stirs outrage with Pike stance
Dimino calls her letter ‘premature and unprecedented’
TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY Stephanie Pollack got a big assist from one of her colleagues in Gov. Charlie Baker’s cabinet on Monday in making the case for a status quo solution to the rebuild of a deteriorating elevated section of the Massachusetts Turnpike on a narrow strip of land sandwiched between Boston University and the Charles River.
Katie Theoharides, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs, was quoted in Pollack’s presentation to the boards of the Department of Transportation and the MBTA as saying that any incursion into the Charles River would be frowned upon by the agencies under her purview who would be asked to review the environmental impact of the construction project.
“My agencies would consider any intrusion into the river excessive, especially if there are alternatives without any intrusion,” said Theoharides.
With that statement, Theoharides appeared to sweep away two proposals and several years of deliberations over the best way to rebuild that section of the Turnpike. The comment also gave Pollack the leverage to push ahead with a plan to rebuild the Turnpike and the surrounding transportation infrastructure pretty much as it is now, which has upset advocates pushing for a bolder solution.
“The whole thing is fishy and makes no sense,” said Harry Mattison, an Allston resident who has been heavily involved in the deliberations over the construction project.
The Theoharides statement was excerpted from a letter she sent to Pollack on June 19. A copy of the letter was released last night by spokeswomen for Theoharides and Pollack around 9 p.m. State officials said the purpose of the letter was to clarify how the agency would interpret impacts on the Charles River. The officials said the letter did not represent a decision on whether any construction alternative could or could not be permitted; they noted that permitting decisions are made after completion of the environmental review process.
In her letter, Theoharides said she was reiterating “one of the central considerations that my agencies have shared in previous comments. While it is not my role as Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs to decide which alternatives MassDOT should carry through the review process, it is incumbent upon DOT to weigh innumerable factors in advancing a project that contains the least environmental impacts while meeting the intended purpose and need. That said, 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. 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 reason the statement was so pivotal was because Pollack in her presentation had narrowed the options for reconstructing the elevated highway to three and the Theoharides statement appeared to eliminate two of them.
Rick Dimino, the president of the business group A Better City, which favors an alternative proposal calling for the Turnpike and all of the other transportation elements to be built at ground level, issued a statement saying he was stunned by Theoharides’s comments.
“Secretary Theoharides’s letter is premature and unprecedented,” he said. “In my long history of developing transportation infrastructure projects, I never witnessed a letter from an environmental regulatory agency that predetermines an outcome before seeing the facts, the environmental impact analysis, and the potential substitutions and mitigation. It’s like a jury making a verdict before they hear the case.”
The deteriorating elevated section of the Turnpike is one element of a much larger $1 billion project to straighten out the highway as it moves through Allston and to make way for a new neighborhood being developed by Harvard University and anchored by a new MBTA station called West Station.
The 204-foot strip of land between BU and the Charles River, often referred to as the throat, has preoccupied planners who have struggled to find a way to rebuild the Turnpike and all the other infrastructure in the area while keeping east-west vehicle and commuter rail traffic moving during a construction period expected to last anywhere from 6 to 10 years.
The downside of the current configuration, with the eight-lane Turnpike elevated, is that it walls off the Charles River from Boston University and Commonwealth Avenue.
One alternative would put all of the transportation elements in the throat area at ground level, but that configuration would take up nearly 244 feet, roughly 40 feet more than is available and requiring the placement of park land and bike and pedestrian paths in the river.
Another option, nicknamed the hybrid, would elevate Soldiers Field Road above the rest of the transportation infrastructure. It would require a temporary rerouting of Soldiers Field Road into the river during construction.Pollack’s third option, which she unveiled on Monday, would retain the elevated eight-lane Turnpike but shrink it a bit and move it farther away from the river. The option would require no incursion into the Charles River.
Pollack said her agency will continue to review all three options until this fall, when a preferred alternative will be selected.