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    A Boston Olympics could lead to transportation solutions

    The little-used bridge carrying the Grand Junction railroad over the Charles River has been discussed for years as a possible transit link between Allston and Kendall Square.
    globe staff
    The little-used bridge carrying the Grand Junction railroad over the Charles River has been discussed for years as a possible transit link between Allston and Kendall Square.

    Cars clog Cambridge’s Kendall Square, the MBTA’s Red Line runs at capacity, and new development expected at the Volpe Center property will only add to the area’s commuting headaches. Luckily, though, of the countless traffic woes facing Massachusetts, Kendall’s gridlock is one of the few that has a plausible solution in sight: The state already owns the little-used rail line that cuts through the area, which has been the subject of planning for passenger service for years.

    Getting the so-called Grand Junction line train running is one of the only transit goals in Greater Boston that might be realistic for a 2024 Olympics to accomplish. Unlike other wish-list projects, like the Red-Blue connector or South Coast rail, the primary obstacle isn’t money (although it will take some of that, too). Introducing train service onto the Grand Junction will require coaxing MIT, Harvard, Boston, Cambridge, and the state onto the same page. That’s the kind of problem that the Olympics, with its built-in deadline, can solve.

    As the boosters try to fine-tune their pitch to voters, promising some kind of transit legacy seems like a good way to convince a skeptical public that the Games are worth holding. Yet the message from backers has been contradictory. While Mayor Marty Walsh proclaims that the Games will leave behind “infrastructure upgrades” that “will answer our city and our state’s greatest needs,” the private Boston 2024 group, afraid of being seen as mooching off taxpayers, says nothing’s really necessary except the new Red and Orange Line trains already in the works.

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    An Olympic plan to turn the Grand Junction into a transit corridor might be a way to thread that needle — a transportation project that wouldn’t be too expensive, yet probably won’t happen anytime soon without a push. If built alongside a bike and pedestrian path — something Cambridge activists have wanted for years — it would make the city a more attractive Olympic destination, providing more transit and walking connections. And just by breaking the stalemate over the line’s future, the Olympic organizers could leave a legacy that has long eluded policy makers.

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    Rich Davey, now Boston 2024’s director, knows the Grand Junction well: As the Patrick administration’s transportation secretary, he proposed running smaller, trolley-like trains on the line between North Station, Cambridge, and a new station in Allston. That would open up more options for commuting to Kendall, relieving demand on the Red Line, while also helping to make Allston a more connected neighborhood after the state’s ongoing project to straighten out the Massachusetts Turnpike, which is expected to open hundreds of acres for new development. But Davey’s plan has gone nowhere — just like previous efforts to divert some conventional commuter rail trains over the Grand Junction, or an even earlier plan to turn the line into a bus rapid transit corridor.

    With every passing year and failed vision, it becomes more obvious what a wasted asset the Grand Junction has become. The line’s only current uses are a few freight cars a day, transfers of MBTA equipment between the northern and southern halves of the commuter-rail network, and occasional special uses like the circus train.

    The best future use for the Grand Junction would involve both the kind of short passenger train service Davey proposed, including a new station in the Kenmore Square area, and a bike path. While fitting both would be a tight squeeze, engineering studies show it can be done, and that they could share the graffiti-covered bridge that now carries the railroad over the Charles. The bike path would connect to planned or existing cycling arteries in Somerville and Boston. Cambridge is already moving in that direction, albeit slowly; after a decade of planning, a first piece of path is under construction.

    What’s needed to realize that corridor’s full potential is a firm commitment by MIT, which has been skittish about bikers and passenger trains running through its campus, despite the potential benefits to students, staff, and the neighborhood. On the Allston end, Harvard is the most important landowner around the planned West Station, and should realize it has a lot to gain from linking its Allston holdings to the thriving Kendall area. The Olympics might help get them on board: Both institutions stand to benefit if the Games come to Boston and help showcase them to the world. The two universities have offered athletic venues to organizers, but it would be a more meaningful Olympic contribution to support — and help pay for — Grand Junction upgrades that would also serve the region’s long-term needs.

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    Just assembling that kind of political coalition would be helpful. But that would still leave financing. The plan for rerouting some trains onto the Grand Junction discussed in 2011 would have cost about $30 million. But the more frequent service Davey later proposed would almost certainly cost more, since it would require buying new trains.

    Considering the MBTA’s financial disarray, counting on conventional funding is probably a non-starter. Instead, the state could use tax-increment financing to pay for some of the track upgrades and station facilities. That would mean, in effect, that the real estate developers clamoring for better transit in Kenmore would help pay for it, the same way private developers funded the Assembly Square station in Somerville. In Allston, Harvard has agreed to pay a third of the cost of a new Allston station, but should also consider kicking in a portion of any income it derives from its Allston real estate holdings on an ongoing basis.

    For two weeks, the “brain train” would carry passengers between the planned archery venue at MIT and swimming complex in Allston — a nice amenity for Olympic-goers. But the real benefit would come afterwards. By injecting some urgency into the Grand Junction planning process, and cajoling stakeholders to get on board, the Olympics could turn an artifact of the 19th century into a building block of the 21st.