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2nd Prd 9:46

Fenway project approval once again expected

A state transportation board member who interrupted a presentation Wednesday with a call to postpone a vote on a $500 million megadevelopment said in an inter­view Thursday that she is now ready to approve an agreement allowing Fenway Center construction to begin.

The startling postponement, which temporarily cast doubts on the future of the landmark project over the Massachusetts Turnpike, apparently resulted from miscommunication — documents that existed but went unread or unshared — between Patrick administration staff and some members of the volunteer board charged with overseeing the state’s sprawling, complex transportation system.

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“It was really a matter of just having some of the paperwork,” said board member Janice Loux, whose skepticism at Wednesday’s public meeting, which caused anxiety among project supporters, had abated by morning.

The sigh of relief among proponents of the Fenway Center came after a meeting that ­exposed the occasional tension between the unpaid governing board, still in its infancy, and the administrators who manage the Department of Transportation on a daily basis.

It also illustrated the tug on the board in wanting to generate more money from transportation real estate — to offset rising fares, tolls, and taxes — without giving away the store.

Though oversight boards are common for independent agencies like Massport, few Massachusetts executive branch depart­ments run by Cabinet secretaries have them, and they are uncommon for transportation departments nationally, Pollack said.

But lawmakers who merged the old Turnpike Authority, MBTA, and other bodies into one Transportation Department in 2009 wanted a board to guide policy and vote on large contracts, partly to reassure the public after the Big Dig.

As the new board endured some criticism — scrutinizing some contracts, while rubber-stamping others or focusing on smaller details at the expense of policy setting — legislators last year increased the board’s size from five to seven members, gave Transportation Secretary Richard A. Davey one of the seats, and raised to $15 million the value of contracts the depart­ment can sign without needing board approval.

Fenway Center, which would bring a bustling residential and commercial complex to what is now weed-strewn parking lots and air next to and above the Mass. Pike by the ballpark, is well above that threshold, with the MassDOT board asked to authorize a 99-year, $227-million lease so the developer can build on those public air rights above the turnpike.

After years of planning and months of behind-the-scenes negotiations, the developer, members of Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, and some on the board thought the vote at this week’s monthly meeting would be a sure thing.

Officials had widely celebrated the transformative and job-creation benefits of the project, and lawyers and outside engineers hired by the state had vetted the numbers. A board subcommittee for ­finance reviewed the particulars at a public meeting last week and recommended them for the full board this week, setting up what seemed like a path to approval.

But Loux, not a member of that finance committee, interrupted the Transportation Depart­ment’s chief financial ­officer during his introduction on the project.

“Why do you say that, so sure of yourself?” asked Loux, a veteran labor leader, putting ­finance chief Dana Levenson on the spot after he claimed the lease payments would easily cover expected long-term maintenance costs for the support deck over the Pike once Fenway Center is finished.

“I actually address that very point in my next sentence,” ­Levenson said, according to a recording of the meeting. His script and a five-page summary sent to board members in ­advance indicated that Jacobs Engineering calculated maintenance costs for the deck at $145 million for the next century, leaving a cushion of more than $80 million for unforeseen ­repairs, not to mention the millions in state and city real ­estate, income, sales, and other taxes expected to be generated at the new complex.

The state also hired law firm McCarter & English and a real estate consultant, Lincoln Properties. Their full reports, and the summary, were available to board members before the meeting upon request, a department spokeswoman said.

Loux, who had not yet read those documents, was unsatisfied. “I really think that there are a lot of unanswered questions, and I think that we ought to have a second set of eyes ­review the details,” she said, seeking a motion to table the vote.

Board member Andrew Whittle, chairman of MIT’s civil and environmental engineering department, supported Loux’s request. Whittle said Thursday he was still waiting to review more background information, but Loux said reading the materials satisfied her. “It’ll be a great project, for the city and for jobs,” she said. “We’re going to get this thing going as soon as we can.”

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at emoskowitz@globe.com.
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