Massachusetts charts Turnpike project as transportation challenges loom

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Massachusetts transportation officials have announced the final plan for an estimated $1.1 billion project that stands to be the biggest highway undertaking in Boston since the controversial Big Dig.

Formally called the Allston Multimodal Project, it will reconfigure the Massachusetts Turnpike — Interstate 90 — where an overhead viaduct swerves through the city’s Allston neighborhood west of downtown along the Charles River, where Harvard and Boston University line each side.


State Department of Transportation officials said Thursday the work will involve converting the turnpike to at-grade and straight-ahead. In what amounts to a flip, DOT also intends to convert nearby Soldiers Field Road along the river to an elevated viaduct. Pedestrian and bicycle lanes are also in the works, as well as more pedestrian footbridges near BU.

Uncertain for now is how the commonwealth will fund the project. A financing strategy will come after the final design and price are in place. DOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack said procurement of a design-build construction contractor could occur in late 2020. Construction may take about eight years, she added.

“I think we’re beyond the Big Dig. I really do,” Richard Dimino, president of the Boston business group A Better City, said of the megaproject formally known as the Central Artery Tunnel Project.

The final tab for the Big Dig, a downtown Boston overhaul whose centerpieces included replacing an elevated highway with a tunnel system and constructing an additional tunnel to Logan International Airport, soared to roughly $24.3 billion from the originally estimated $2.6 billion.

Thursday's announcement came one month after a 19-member panel appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker released a 237-page, two-volume report that looked hard at the state's transportation challenges 20 years out.

Key points in “Choices for Stewardship: Recommendations to Meet the Transportation Future” include funding streams, governance, changing demographics, climate volatility, technological advances and autonomous vehicles. It attempts to lay out a blueprint for 2020 to 2040.

Also in 2040, Massachusetts expects to retire Big Dig-related debt, which could open up future transportation funding options. Toll revenue collected along the Mass Pike and Boston Harbor crossings backstops the bonds.

Massachusetts transportation is an odd blend of the old and the new, involving ancient, clogged subway lines and highways amid bursting population clusters in capital city Boston; revolving-door leadership at the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the state-run agency that runs mass transit in Boston; and disparate transit options elsewhere in the state, where economic growth has lagged that of Boston.

Baker, who just began his second term, is a moderate Republican who works with a heavily Democratic legislature. His administration will review the panel’s recommendations.

Steven Kadish, commission chairman and senior research fellow at Harvard University’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, said the hot-button issues, taken together, “represent a level of uncertainty about the future of mobility that has not been seen since the widespread adoption of the private automobile.”

Dimino found the commission’s emphasis on transportation vitality encouraging.

“We were worried that the commission would choose technology as a silver bullet,” he said. “We were glad that while they considered tech very important, under no circumstances is it a panacea. The good news is that over the last four years, we have worked with the Baker administration at making the existing transportation system better.”

A Better City’s own report, “The Future of Transportation,” called on Massachusetts to rethink its transportation funding mechanisms.

“This is an opportunity to be bold with respect to transportation infrastructure but also advance other goals like cleaner air, less congestion, a healthier population and more equitable mobility access,” the report said.

Some transportation advocates have touted the $305 million Longfellow Bridge reconstruction as a sign of optimism, despite its cost overruns.

The iconic 1906 span connects Boston and Cambridge across the Charles River. It reopened last May after years of construction. It carries cars, bicycles and the MBTA’s Red Line subway trains.

Years of neglect, followed by delays related to historical-related construction methods, had left the bridge in disrepair.

“The bridge was like a family pet who has been left out overnight in the cold,” said Dave Westerling, a professor emeritus in the engineering department at Merrimack College. “Thankfully, the experience seems to have sparked awareness of just what a bad idea that is.”

According to a study by Westerling and former Pioneer Institute research director Steve Poftak — just named MBTA general manager — the combined cost of all maintenance to the bridge over the last century, including the recent renovation, would have totaled about $143 million had the commonwealth invested 1% of the bridge’s capital cost annually in a maintenance program.

The new iteration has bike lanes on each side. A replacement footbridge connecting Charles Circle to the Charles River Esplanade is still under construction.

“There were some tradeoffs,” Westerling said. “The bridge had to stay. It couldn’t be replaced by something new. The renovations took some time. Granite blocks had to be taken out brick by brick.”

Other infrastructure strides in Massachusetts, he added, include repair and replacement of its courthouses; renovations to state college facilities; and the Massachusetts State Library program, which has helped build 54 new libraries and fund 169 renovation projects.

The MBTA, which locals call “the T,” is an ongoing concern. Turnover at the top hasn’t helped. Poftak, who stepped in earlier this month, is the fifth general manager at the authority under Baker, who took office in January 2015 just as the T crumbled amid a record Greater Boston snowfall of 109 inches that winter.

“He knows the MBTA,” Westerling said of Poftak, the former vice-chairman of the state-appointed control board that oversees the MBTA. “He’s a guy who can put this thing together.”

Christof Spieler, author of the new book “Trains, Buses, People,” called Boston “a great place to ride transit, but it could be much better.”

Overall, he said, many of Boston’s transit dollars have gone where least needed: $600 million for a bus tunnel under the new Seaport District with ample space for reserved lanes on the surface; and $534 million for the Greenbush commuter rail line from Scituate, a South Shore suburb that already has express ferry service to Boston.

Governance structures may have to change, according to A Better City.

“The federal government dictates our ability to price some roads, the MBTA owns buses but the cities and towns control how the buses use them. [Regional transit authorities] fill in where other systems end,” ABC said.

Transit-oriented development, Dimino said, could include clusters of affordable housing and developers or institutions funding infill stations. Thursday’s announcement about the Mass Pike Allston project could propel construction of the infill West Station along the nearby rail yards. The new train station is but one intended byproduct of straightening the turnpike, along with freed land for Harvard development and open space near the river.

“The business community has been supportive and Harvard and BU have rolled up their sleeves on this,” Dimino said.

According to Dimino, transit-oriented development could help fill an affordable housing need throughout Massachusetts.

“Housing that’s affordable and stays affordable create opportunities. What a sweet spot that would be for transit,” he said. Market-rate clusters, he added, house more affluent residents who often use cars, not transit.

Successful transit-oriented development, according to Spieler, involves areas already dense.

“When we talk about transit-oriented development we often talk about empty greenfields with new development,” he said. “But all of Manhattan is essentially transit-oriented development and there’s a lot more that can happen like that.”

New York City used this approach in its Hudson Yards project. A local development corporation, under a value-capture initiative, issued bonds periodically to finance the extension of the No. 7 subway line and to make other infrastructure improvements to enhance commercial and residential development surrounding 45 blocks.

Feel-good development examples, said Spieler, include his current home of Houston, where three stations exist near the Texas Medical Center complex; downtown Seattle; and the planned Purple Line in Washington’s Maryland suburbs, where suburban activity will integrate with rail-system spokes.

“Transit planning is actually really simple. We’re not doing it well at all,” Spieler told members of the New York civic organization TransitCenter.

Pivotal Boston transportation clusters include the Seaport District, home to relocated General Electric and where critics call the MBTA Silver Line that serves it inadequate; the Longwood Medical District bordering suburban Brookline and which Dimino called “a city in its own right”; and potentially the former Suffolk Downs raceway in East Boston, a casino-site finalist that Amazon scrutinized during its search for an additional headquarters.

Other ambitious projects under consideration include a 1.6-mile commuter rail link between train hubs North Station and South Station, which former governors Michael Dukakis and William Weld have touted.

Cost estimates for the rail link, though, have run as high as $17 billion.

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Infrastructure Transportation industry Charlie Baker Commonwealth of Massachusetts Massachusetts
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