State transportation officials on Monday unveiled a new potential design for a massive highway project through Allston that would keep the Massachusetts Turnpike on an elevated structure and Soldiers Field Road grounded along the Charles River, marking a major departure from earlier visions for the largest highway project pending in Boston.
It’s the latest twist in a long-running and contentious debate about how to fit a web of roads, rails, and bicycle and walking paths into a thin stretch of land between Boston University and the Charles River called “the throat,” which at its narrowest point is two-thirds the length of a football field.
Another idea, to lower the turnpike to ground level and elevate Soldiers Field Road, was once widely favored but was later met with sharp criticism of construction details, prompting another round of review after more than five years of debate.
This latest version would in some ways differ from the current highway viaduct that runs through the area: It would be shorter and farther from the river. It would also be designed to accommodate a pedestrian and bike footbridge that could connect Allston to the Charles, though it would hardly seem scenic, running directly below the highway.
During a marathon board meeting, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and other officials stressed they were not making a final decision on the design. Instead, they were introducing a new option to be studied alongside others over the coming months.
But Pollack said time is running out before the existing viaduct becomes unsafe. She noted that this marked the third time the state will go back to the drawing board after seemingly arriving at a “preferred alternative” for the project.
“I will also say this is the last time,” she said Monday, pledging to reach a final decision this fall. “We need a preferred alternative for the throat . . . and we need a decision to be made on that preferred alternative in months, not years.”
Developed after consensus collapsed on a proposal to elevate Soldiers Field Road and bring the turnpike slightly below grade, the new configuration would be a major change in course. Pollack had previously said keeping the highway in the air would fail to address “longstanding concerns that the I-90 viaduct stands as a barrier between the Allston community and the Charles River.”
The maneuver could also spark a skirmish at high levels of regional politics, as Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh recently signed onto a letter suggesting he would “stand with” residents concerned about building a new viaduct. Walsh’s office on Monday said it would review the idea.
While officials did not select a design, they seemed to boost the new viaduct design by saying it would address concerns that prompted the backlash to the once-celebrated proposal to lift Soldiers Field Road: It would take less time to build, cause less disruption to commuter rail service, and require no infrastructure construction — temporary or permanent — over the Charles River.
“A redesigned highway viaduct has several other advantages over the other” options that will be studied in the coming months, said Mike O’Dowd, who is overseeing the project for the state.
Rick Dimino, a former Boston transportation commissioner and president of the advocacy group A Better City, said it seemed as if officials were already leaning toward the new plan, citing a slide in their presentation Monday that suggested it was the best option.
“The highway viaduct that’s there today is an eyesore, visually intrusive, and is a barrier to the Charles River. In the 21st century we’re going to replicate that?” Dimino said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The state will continue to study the Soldiers Field Road viaduct idea, which many advocates supported because it would require a much smaller footprint but then criticized once the state described its hugely disruptive construction process.
Officials will also consider an idea to put all the infrastructure at ground level, another favorite of some advocates because it could easily allow for footbridges to connect the neighborhood to the river. But O’Dowd suggested that idea is still unlikely because it would require an encroachment on the Charles River, a permitting risk that Pollack has long said she is unwilling to test.
It appears state officials will not study a version that would either eliminate traffic lanes or narrow existing lanes or highway shoulders to fit everything at grade.
Harry Mattison, an Allston resident and member of a public task force on the project, said the announcement was “the worst possible outcome” because the state seemed to suggest it now favored keeping the turnpike elevated.
The state should focus on options that more closely fit the vision of the neighborhood, such as elevating Soldiers Field Road or putting everything at grade, and engineer solutions that address concerns with the construction process, he said.
“It’s not the idea that’s bad,” Mattison said. “It’s like saying, ‘Here’s a burned steak.’ It’s not that steak is bad, it’s that burned steak is bad.”
Other advocates took hope from Monday’s meeting.
Staci Rubin, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, said she had feared Pollack would announce a final decision; the fact that the process remains open will allow for more debate. She said state officials should indicate how they will mitigate environmental impacts for the various plans in the coming months, to help compare the options and decide which is best.
If all else fails, the state could repair the existing viaduct, Pollack said.
Betsy Taylor, a member of the Department of Transportation’s governing board, said the state should be prepared to fall back on that option if “there continues to be a lack of consensus.”
“I, for one, will push hard to repair the viaduct, because I believe the safety of the traveling public is the first and highest priority,” she said.
While debate about the project has centered on the “throat” area, the plan would also straighten the turnpike where it loops near the Exit 18 interchange and add a rail and bus “West Station” with four tracks and three platforms on land that would be opened up for development. Pollack said those parts of the project are moving forward, even as debate about the throat continues.
“It’s important to remember that the throat is not the project,” she said. “The throat is one piece of a very important and complicated multi-modal project.”
Also Monday, officials acknowledged that another high-profile transportation initiative — the delivery of new fleets of Red and Orange line subway cars — had fallen off-track, months after a third new train was first expected on the Orange Line.
The MBTA’s general manager, Steve Poftak, cited factory closures due to the coronavirus in both China and Springfield, where the trains are being assembled, and said officials are working with the Chinese manufacturer, CRRC, to develop a new schedule.