A plan to promote growth and unsnarl traffic raises questions

Boston traffic (Dave L / Flickr)

By Prithvi G. Tikhe
Boston University Statehouse Program

BOSTON – How do you get today from Natick to Kendall Square? You basically have one choice. You sit in your car in traffic for way too long on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Then you sit in traffic in Allston, then you sit in traffic in Cambridge, then you pay a lot of money to park your car for a day.

Transit advocates envision replacing a deficient Mass. Pike viaduct as a key step to unsnarling choked traffic – both cars and public transit – affecting commuters from eastern and central Massachusetts while at the same time providing an opportunity to develop now-untapped land for business and residential uses in an area where a lot of the state job growth is already taking place.

As part of the I-90 Allston Interchange Improvement Project, the state plans to replace and straighten the structurally deficient and functionally obsolete section of the Mass. Pike, I-90, which dates back to 1965.  This elevated viaduct carries the highway through the Allston/Brighton area with Cambridge Street and Soldiers Field Road to the north and Brighton Avenue to the south.

Planners say a replaced I-90 viaduct will ensure safe and efficient flow of traffic to and from Boston. The viaduct has an average daily traffic volume of approximate 144,000 vehicles per day according to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

 The project will open up about 100 acres for the creation of the new neighborhood and station in Allston and on Harvard University’s land holdings in the former Beacon Park Yards.

The debate among MassDOT, transit advocates, and public officials centers around construction of West Station, a new stop on the Worcester/Framingham commuter line, raising the question of whether building the $100 million multimodal transit hub must go in tandem with the neighborhood development in Allston or whether it can be added as the development nears completion.

With about 4,000 units of housing in the pipeline across the Allston-Brighton neighborhood and over 2,000 units already being proposed for the Cambridge Street corridor in Allston, West Station would provide additional transit opportunities for a neighborhood impacted by increasing traffic congestion.

Jason Desrosier, Manager of Community Building and Engagement of the Allston-Brighton Community Development Corp., said West Station should be prioritized as part of phase one, and not pushed until later, even if a temporary West Station is built and the full build-out eventually happened.

“Recognizing our desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create a carbon neutral city, meet the goals of the Paris climate agreement, and compete globally to be the best city in which to work and live, we should choose to invest now in this project with the residents of the neighborhood in mind,” said Desrosier.

However, MassDOT spokesperson Patrick Marvin said before new jobs and new residents arrive in the immediate vicinity of a future station, travel demand for the proposed West Station is unknown. It is scheduled to be built “prior” to 2040, rather than in the year 2040, he said.

The Mass. Pike is the primary east-west route between western Massachusetts, Worcester and Boston, and experiences extensive vacation traffic during the weekends in the summer and winter.

Average daily traffic volumes for the Pike west of the Allston Interchange are 142,000 vehicles and east of the Allston interchange are 147,000. Average daily traffic volumes for Cambridge Street are 38,000, Soldiers Field Road are 66,000 and the Allston interchange ramps are 66,000.

West Station would provide western commuters with public transportation to Boston and Cambridge. It would be the center of a local network tying together Harvard Business School, Boston University, and the Longwood Medical Area, linking all three more easily to the Framingham/Worcester rail line, and eventually set the stage for rail service into the Kendall Square area of Cambridge.

The Draft Environmental Impact Report for the I-90 Allston Interchange Improvement Project proposes it  be built after the current Beacon Park Yards area is developed, a proposal that has the backing of a Worcester legislator.

“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” said Rep. John Mahoney, D-Worcester. “I’m all for the administration taking the time they need to carefully look at the whole project with an eye on the big picture of how it’s going to address our transportation needs.”

From his point of view, any way to increase faster accessibility to Boston and Cambridge from Worcester and giving people better alternatives to driving is always a positive.

Mahoney said Boston looks like one of a small number of global super-cities such as New York, San Francisco, Washington, and Los Angeles that are poised for further growth – and congestion.

In a 2017 INRIX study, Boston is the seventh-most-congested city in the United States and commuters spend more than 60 hours sitting in traffic every year. Massachusetts ranks 47th nationally for commuting times.

That may be in part because the Boston-Cambridge-Newton metropolitan division gained 49,500 jobs between July 2017-2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, leading to an increase in the number of vehicle commuters. It also means developers are looking to work with companies that want to be near transit lines, allowing people to get to work faster and more easily and ensure that the benefits of a booming economy are fair and accessible to all.

“It’s all about equity for people and creating housing choices,” said Harry Mattison, Allston resident and member of the I-90 Allston Interchange Task Force.

Naturally, cost is a stumbling block for the project.

Harvard University is willing to pay $58 million and Boston University has recently recommitted to a 2014 pledge to pay $8.33 million, according to Colin Riley, executive director of media relations. Advocates believe those commitments will significantly reduce the state’s financial commitment.

“It will be easier and cheaper to build the facility at the same time [as reconstructing the highway],” said Mattison.

While state officials acknowledge that their ridership projections isn’t perfect, their computer model suggests otherwise. They forecast that West Station would serve only 250 commuter rail riders and 2,900 bus riders in 2040, when the new neighborhood is expected to have 7 million square feet of new space developed.

Data collected for the DEIR indicate that the station is not needed to mitigate the traffic impacts of the Interchange Improvement Project according to Marvin.

Ari Ofsevit, a transit activist pursuing a master’s degree in transportation engineering and urban planning at MIT, disagreed.

He said the Boston Landing station on the Framingham/Worcester line, which opened last year in Brighton, is already serving more than 500 passengers per day, despite having one-tenth the development around it and no good connections to other major employment centers.

“This alone should make the model’s conclusions suspect,” said Ofsevit.

Currently, there are three lanes on the River Street and Western Avenue bridges between the Mass. Pike to Cambridge, which can handle about 1,500 vehicles per hour. Given commuter travel patterns, he estimated peak hourly demand at West Station would be in the order of 1,000 vehicles, nearly the same capacity as the bridges.

MassDOT considers the proposed site the staging area for the viaduct reconstruction, which would mean the station could not be physically be built before 2025, construction is scheduled to be complete. That’s not a compelling argument for the community.

“There’s never going to be more space to build West Station than there is right now,” said Mattison. “If there’s not enough space to build it now, how much space will there be after the highway is reconstructed?”

He also took issue with MassDOT’s argument that adding another rail stop in Allston will slow down riders from Framingham and Worcester, suggesting this problem could be overcome in steps over many years by building a higher-level platform to allow people to get on and off the trains faster, building platforms on both sides of the track so the trains don’t get in each other’s way and electrifying the line.

State officials also see immediate construction undermining current plan for midday layover space for commuter rail trains, another argument that falls flat for neighbors.

“It’s a terrible idea because the city is never going to build something and then be willing to give it up later,” said Jessica Robertson, an Allston resident. “It’s a bad use of our resources; instead of storing them in the highest value land in the Eastern Seaboard north of New York City, we could be running those trains and providing better transit service.”

MassDOT expects to receive robust public comments on the project, and looks forward to continuing to refine the design with public input.

But Ofsevit said he feels that MassDOT lacks much vision beyond replacing the highway.

“There’s nothing wrong with rebuilding aging infrastructure, but given that the region is growing, both in population and economically, we can’t get by just by rebuilding what we have,” he said. “Look at the Big Dig, it was probably a good decision to build it, but it didn’t solve traffic.”

He said unlike the highways, the transit system has spare capacity, but needs targeted investments like West Station to unlock that capacity and these investments should be at the forefront of a project like the I-90 Allston interchange, not put on the back burner.

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