At its heart, the problem plaguing the massive Massachusetts Turnpike project through Allston appears to be one of geometry: How do you squeeze an eight-lane highway, a four-lane parkway, bike and walking paths, and four railroad tracks into a narrow strip of land without spilling into the Charles River?
The state government has been struggling with that equation for years as it labors on a plan to rebuild the turnpike through a crowded section of Allston called “the throat,” part of the $1 billion-plus project that would be the most complex and costly highway job in Boston since the Big Dig. The most recent idea, floated in June, would essentially keep the status quo, with a new hulking highway viaduct between the Charles and Boston University that neighborhood activists criticize as a barrier to the river.
Others see the challenges as more philosophical, arguing the state’s approach has been too car-centric from the start: Why, in 2020, is Massachusetts still thinking narrowly in terms of a highway project, especially when there is a movement afoot to reduce Boston’s epic traffic by moving commuters onto public transit and the state is under pressure to reduce climate-changing emissions from cars and trucks?
And this approach, too, they say, can be reduced to a simple math question: “Why don’t we just build fewer lanes?” asked Emily Norton, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association.
In years of planning, this question hadn’t really emerged front and center until now, with Norton and some advocates pressing the state to shrink the amount of space dedicated to cars, making room for other components — such as public transit and recreation — while still protecting the river and eliminating the highway viaduct.
To the state, however, the request is a nonstarter. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the states need all 12 lanes because of the significant volume of traffic — about 225,000 vehicles a day, prior to the pandemic — on both the turnpike and Soldiers Field Road. Additionally, officials say, they are essentially at zero-hour on a final plan for this section of the project; eliminating lanes would be a massive change too close to the expected decision day later this fall.
The state has said the project must achieve several goals, highlighted by replacement of the aging turnpike viaduct, which is in poor condition. Another priority is straightening the highway as it curves west, both to make it safer for drivers and open land for development, as well as adding other safety features such as shoulders where today there are none.
Officials have also long argued the turnpike rebuild is more than a highway project — a “multimodal” initiative that will include a rail and bus hub called West Station in a new neighborhood made possible by the road straightening, as well as better biking and walking paths.
Yet some critics say that these ambitious claims don’t stand close examination. Many of the non-car-related aspects of the project, from the operation and expansion of rail service to recreational uses along the river, seem to take second billing to preserving all 12 vehicle lanes, they argue.
“It’s getting awfully close to green-washing territory” to call the project multimodal, said Jarred Johnson, director of the advocacy group TransitMatters, referring to attempts to make something seem more environmentally friendly than it actually is.
For example, project leaders still haven’t committed to keeping both lines of the Worcester commuter rail open throughout construction. And some are frustrated that, given Boston’s notorious traffic, the state has not studied whether adding more rail service would move enough commuters out of cars to allow for a smaller highway rebuild.
“All they do is say, ‘multimodal,’ but won’t even study what it would take” to get more frequent trains, said Galen Mook, president of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition.
Also, the state has indicated it would wait to build West Station until after the highway work is done, some 10 or more years into the project. And goals to allow train service and bike and walking paths over the Grand Junction railroad bridge that crosses the Charles between Boston and Cambridge are not included in the state plans, though officials say the project would allow them to add those in the future.
“I’m an old man,” said Fred Salvucci, 80, the former Massachusetts state transportation czar and mastermind of the Big Dig, who believes the Grand Junction railroad project should be explicitly included. “I’ve been around this thing too many times. The phrase ‘we will leave that option open’ — I can point to a lot of places in this city where we left options open, only to have them close.”
Still others see an unsubtle message in the state plans for a possible pedestrian connection from the BU campus to the riverfront: a boxed-in, elevated corridor attached to the underside of the viaduct, a design that would literally put people below cars.
“The pedestrian connection underneath, in a cage if you will, really just reminded me of a thinking that was from 40 years ago,” said Kishore Varanasi, director of urban design at the architecture firm CBT. “It is all about driving on these highways, through cities, without any consideration of social, economic, or environmental aspects. That’s the mentality of the ’70s traffic and transportation planning, and I’m unfortunately surprised to see that it is still happening here.”
In June, the state revived the highway viaduct proposal after the collapse of support for a more popular plan to flip the two roads, with the Pike lanes moved slightly below grade and the Soldiers Field moved to a much smaller viaduct. This scheme’s construction plans, however, had issues that underscored small divisions among the many groups involved in the planning. Some environmental groups, for example, strongly objected to the construction of a temporary Soldiers Field Road that would extend more than 100 feet past the riverbank, sending cars directly over the Charles for up to a decade.
Others have suggested filling in part of the river to create more space to fit everything at grade level, but that idea is strongly opposed by the watershed association — a sign of the difficult path to consensus among the project’s many stakeholders.
The state is also still considering the Soldiers Field viaduct and a third option, too, to put everything at grade. But Pollack points out the state’s top environmental regulator has already said her office should avoid any construction that would disrupt the riverfront, which she suggested may leave the highway viaduct as her only option.
“When we’re weighing the pros and cons of the three alternatives in the fall, if we have an alternative that does not touch the river, it’s going to be hard to beat,” Pollack said in an interview.
Norton said the watershed association is considering hiring its own consultant to study a version that would have fewer traffic lanes, adding that approach would address another environmental concern: air pollution from too much car traffic.
“Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, achieving net-zero — they’re just not consistent with rebuilding highways with the same road capacity,” she said.
Pollack, again, pushed back, arguing that dropping lanes just through the throat section wouldn’t reduce driving, since the highway would return to its wider size a half-mile or so in either direction.
“What does it accomplish for climate change to have the road be a certain number of lanes, and then for less than a mile it’s a different number of lanes?” she asked.
Not every critic of the state’s overall plan thinks fewer lanes is the solution. Salvucci, for example, said it’s reasonable for Pollack to want to preserve all 12. Other organizations involved in the planning say it may be too late to redraw the project with fewer lanes. A Better City, a business-backed nonprofit that originally launched to aid in Big Dig planning, has suggested the state should instead promise to study whether it could reduce Soldiers Field Road’s lanes sometime in the future, possibly by adding new ramps to direct traffic to the turnpike.
Turnpike commuters would also likely object to losing lanes, and they have support in high places, with Pollack noting these drivers will want the quickest possible construction with the fewest disruptions; the highway viaduct could shorten construction by two years compared to the Soldiers Field viaduct plan, which was expected to take up to a decade. Senate President Karen Spilka, who lives near the turnpike in Ashland, has expressed similar sentiments; an aide recently said commuters could not support a lane reduction given the heavy traffic into the city.
Pollack also added that the state does not have have a funding plan in place for the turnpike project and that the longer the debate goes on, the more likely it will grow in size and complexity, and its costs will rise well above $1 billion.
“People’s solution to every problem they find is simply to find more scope and more cost until it becomes so complicated and expensive that it’s difficult to build and impossible to pay for,” she said.
The challenging hunt for consensus reminds some planning veterans of the Big Dig debate that eventually led to the design of the widely praised Zakim Bridge. State officials redesigned that end of the project after considerable criticism of a monstrous interchange called “Scheme Z” that would have created a wall of roads along the Charles in Cambridge.
But that dispute at least felt like it was inevitably headed for resolution because so much else of the Central Artery project was settled and ready to go, said William “Buzz” Constable, former president of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. In Allston, he worried that nothing can move forward until the debate over the throat section is settled.
“It seems to me the community process is more difficult” now, Constable said. “The momentum at that point to do the Central Artery meant there had to be a solution. Although the Pike is falling down, that just isn’t apparent enough to create that same kind of momentum. Consequently, nobody is compromising.”