The biggest Boston highway project in a generation could veer in yet a new direction or even make a U-turn, after the latest plan to squeeze 12 lanes of traffic into a narrow strip of land along the Charles River in Allston has come under withering criticism.
On Monday, state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack is expected to disclose the state’s latest thinking on the $1 billion-plus Massachusetts Turnpike Allston Interchange project, which already has been more than five years in the making and could take up to a decade to finish.
While the state declined to comment on possible changes to the project, Pollack has previously acknowledged she was undertaking a close review of the current plan. Officials have indicated they are considering everything from minor tweaks to major changes after being taken aback by the high level of pushback to the current plan over the fall and winter.
“Monday could mark one of the most important days in the over-five-year history of this project,” said Rick Dimino, president of the business group A Better City, which has been involved in the planning process for years.
The interchange is one of those projects that promise a sweeping remake of a part of Boston that will be felt for generations. Among those involved in the long saga, there is hope Pollack will embrace a new approach, but also fear that she will backtrack to consider simply rebuilding the existing highway. Some argue the coronavirus pandemic has provided an opportunity for a more radical option: reducing the sheer number of highway lanes, while leaving the area along the river undisturbed.
The project would replace the aging highway viaduct near the western end of the Boston University campus and straighten the long, looping curve the turnpike makes as it steers toward Newton. It could also improve transit options, bicycle and walking paths, and the recreation space along the river.
But those grand visions have to be reconciled with a vexing geometry challenge: fitting all the traffic lanes and rail lines, as well as a bike and walking path, through a narrow section between BU and the Charles called “the throat.“
Last year Pollack settled on a design that would bring the eight lanes of the turnpike to ground level, put the four-lane Soldiers Field Road above it on a new viaduct, and add park space to the riverfront. Elevating Soldiers Field Road, instead of keeping it at grade level, would open up more space in the area; the new viaduct also would be much smaller than the current one, which critics say has acted as a barrier to the riverfront.
But the initial support for her proposal has since collapsed, after neighborhood, environmental, and transportation groups objected to several aspects of the state’s construction plan as details unfolded in the following months. Some have complained that it is too highway-centric, putting cars before environmental considerations such as recreation along the river. A scheme to relocate Soldiers Field Road over the Charles River on a “temporary” basis during construction, they noted, could last for a decade, and the state has also refused to add a footbridge for easier pedestrian access to the waterfront.
Another pressing issue is that the construction schedule could lead to severe disruptions on the commuter rail for years.
A spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, Jacquelyn Goddard, said only that the Allston project has “continued to move forward” and confirmed it would be discussed at two separate public meetings on Monday.
The existing plan drew its highest-profile criticism just two weeks ago when Senator Ed Markey and Cogresswoman Ayanna Pressley teamed up on a letter to Pollack saying they are “concerned by the potential long-term environmental and transportation implications of proposed designs.”
The project is still too highway-centric, Markey and Pressley said, suggesting Pollack give further thought to another idea she had previously jettisoned: expanding the shoreline along the Charles to create more room for infrastructure. This, they argued, could be better for the river than putting a temporary roadway over it for years.
“A full evaluation of multiple alternatives, including potential ecological improvements, is necessary to understand which plan is best for the local environment,” Markey and Pressley wrote.
Pollack has said that filling in part of the Charles there to create more land for the highway project would make it more difficult for the project to receive permits from the federal government.
Others question why the state is still trying to squeeze 12 lanes of traffic through such a narrow area, especially as the pandemic has shown how much telecommuting can reduce congestion. The prospect of more people continuing to work from home, as well as the state’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions, could make it more politically feasible to eliminate traffic lanes, especially with better public transit, another important goal of the Allston project.
“Can we return the riverfront to local slow traffic and push all regional traffic onto the Pike?” said Robin Chase, the cofounder of Zipcar, who has been meeting with advocates and state officials in a bid to develop a new plan. “If you brought [Soldiers Field Road] to two lanes, it does feel like it changes what is possible.”
On Friday, several advocacy organizations — including the Conservation Law Foundation, the Allston Civic Association, and the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition — submitted a letter to Pollack suggesting she should consider options with as few as eight total car lanes.
Dimino, meanwhile, appears more worried that Pollack will go in the opposite direction and bring back a less ambitious version that had already been rejected: rebuilding the highway in its current elevated place.
“We think it would be a serious misstep for MassDOT to misinterpret stakeholder commentary ... and resurrect the Highway Viaduct,” Dimino’s organization, A Better City, wrote in a letter to Pollack on Thursday.
A Better City recommended the state consider construction schedules that would have less impact on the Charles, or squeeze all the highway lanes and rail lines at or below grade level without building a road into the river. That could be accomplished while keeping 12 lanes, Dimino said, by narrowing the highway shoulder, and even the lanes on Soldiers Field Road, making it more of a parkway with slower traffic.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh also added his voice to the debate on Friday, signing on to a letter with several other elected officials from the city and state pledging to “stand with” residents opposed to any plan that keeps the highway viaduct in place. The officials urged the state to include new footbridges and bus connections in the project as well.
Pollack has emphasized that the state needs to move quickly on the project because the existing turnpike viaduct is deteriorating. Officials had hoped to get construction underway in 2022, but that schedule could already be slipping.
However, Pollack could invite challenges to the project at the permitting and legal levels if she moves forward on a design with considerable opposition, especially from Pressley and Markey.
The state expects the project, which will include a new transit station along the Worcester commuter line, to cost at least $1.2 billion. Officials are considering several funding sources, including Harvard University, since the project will open school-owned land for new development. The House of Representatives earlier this year authorized $250 million in borrowing for the project, though the state Senate has not yet approved.
Harry Mattison, an Allston resident who has been involved in the project for years, is also worried that Pollack will default to rebuilding the existing highway viaduct out of frustration and mounting costs.
That would be unacceptable, Mattison said, as he believes consensus could be reached on another new design effort. He also suggested the state wait to make a final decision until after the November presidential election, arguing that if Democrat Joe Biden wins, there may be an opportunity to get more money from the federal government.
“Here’s another project where we’re measuring the cost in billions,” Mattison said. “It should be a real project we take pride in, not just because somebody got fed up and we just said, ‘To hell with it, we’ll do something nobody likes.‘ ”