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OPINION

Highway visions, and revisions

The state has a chance for a legacy project for Mass Pike in Allston. Will it grab it?

An aerial view of the Mass Pike in Allston over the Charles River.
An aerial view of the Mass Pike in Allston over the Charles River.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

Of all the qualities associated with state Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack, retreat is not usually among them. But that’s how it appeared to some last week, when she announced that a visionary plan to tear down an ugly, elevated section of the Massachusetts Turnpike and remake the Allston community underneath might not happen after all.

After nearly six years of planning, Pollack told both the Department of Transportation board and a dismayed community task force that a painstakingly designed proposal to demolish the 1960s-era viaduct, lift Soldier’s Field Road above the Pike, and reconnect Allston to the Charles River was hamstrung by environmental and engineering challenges. She offered an alternative that would avoid encroachment into the river and shorten the overall construction period and its attendant disruptions but would entail keeping the eight lanes of the Pike elevated on a rebuilt viaduct.

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The response was swift and sharp. “It’s 100 percent a step in the wrong direction,” said Jessica Robertson, an urban planner and member of the Allston Multimodal Project task force that MassDOT assembled to help arrive at a preferred design. Rick Dimino, president of the business-backed group A Better City, which began during the Central Artery construction, fears a generational opportunity will be lost. “If we’ve learned nothing else over these years, it’s that transportation interventions should be about city-building, not just getting from point A to point B,” he said.

But Pollack, whose devilishly complex job involves balancing the needs of diverse stakeholders while complying with a welter of environmental laws, is frustrated by the reaction. “I haven’t decided to build this,” she said in an interview, “but to not have a public conversation because of ideological opposition to any idea of a viaduct, I simply don’t accept that.” Pollack has established a fall deadline to reach a decision. “We are just out of time to continue kicking the can down the road.”

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Pollack defends the latest design, noting it still connects to a planned West Station commuter rail hub, still straightens a troublesome curve in the turnpike to open up acres of mostly Harvard-owned land for development, still allows for new commuter rail connections to Kendall Square, and creates a permeable ground area to mitigate river flooding. It also keeps Soldiers Field Road at grade, preserving the opportunity, should traffic demands ease in the future, to return the road to the low-speed boulevard it was designed to be.

But it doesn’t heal the injury to the city made by car-centric transportation decisions a half-century old.

Some advocates, including A Better City and the fiscally conservative Pioneer Institute, are pushing for an option to put all of the infrastructure — the Pike, Soldiers Field Road, the rail tracks, and the Paul Dudley White bicycle path — at grade, a cheaper alternative that could allow for overpasses to reknit Allston to the river. Pollack’s revised plan includes a pedestrian and bicycle path grudgingly jammed underneath the elevated highway. But the at-grade option also requires building into the river at the narrow “throat'' area of land near the BU Bridge, something Pollack says she is “legally and morally” obliged to avoid. She produced a strongly worded letter from Katie Theoharides, state secretary of environmental affairs, who said her agencies would consider “any intrusion into the river excessive, especially if there are alternatives without any intrusion.”

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Nonetheless, key river advocates, including the Charles River Watershed Association and the Charles River Conservancy, say that park infrastructure, such as extending the Paul Dudley White path on a boardwalk over the Charles, could be justified if construction is accompanied by restoration “that improves the overall ecological integrity of the river.” Reducing lanes on Soldiers Field Road or the Pike would also create enough room to avoid the river, but Pollack says she has no plans to do that.

Pollack is irked that so much time and energy has been focused on the throat, which is only part of the $1 billion-plus Interstate 90 reconstruction project. “The throat is the tail,” she said, wagging the dog. But the throat is also where MassDOT has a chance for a legacy project, an enduring prize of urban transformation that anticipates climate change, neighborhood development, and new, better ways of moving people and goods. That would be planning for the future we want, rather surrendering to the present we have.


Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.