The state is poised to build a once-in-a-generation transportation project in greater Boston, but its vision is being constrained and its execution stalled by infighting.
Like a crabby married couple, MassDOT and the civic groups that have spent six years lobbying to improve the agency’s plans for rebuilding the Allston interchange are now exaggerating each other’s flaws and sniping at each other’s bad habits.
To the state transportation agency, the laborious process of reaching consensus on a plan to replace the crumbling viaduct and realign the highway has been endangered by uncompromising activists clinging to impractical ideas who just won’t take yes for an answer.
To the advocates, the agency is hopelessly in thrall to old-fashioned thinking about highway design and is at risk of wasting an opportunity to transform part of the city.
But if they were to see a counselor, or just step back and look at the bigger picture, the contending parties might see their remaining differences are not quite as large as they appear.
In fact, one of the three plans that Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack proposed to carry forward into the project’s environmental review process — the final step before picking a preferred alternative — is pretty close to what advocates have asked for, and could form the basis for a compromise agreement.
The good news is that Pollack and A Better City, one of the main skeptics of her plan, are still talking. If they can converge on consensus for a plan that builds on Pollack’s at-grade option and avoids the need for a new viaduct, it would be of lasting benefit to the neighborhood and the region.
The discussion was triggered by the need to replace the Mass. Pike viaduct, which curves around the site of what used to be a freight railyard between the Boston University campus and the Charles River.
The railyard is no longer in use, which means the road can be straightened. It could also eliminate the need to elevate the roadway. The land opened up by realigning the road, most of which is owned by Harvard, could become a vibrant new neighborhood. The project will also lead to strengthened bus and commuter rail connections — and ideally, better-linked bike and pedestrian routes and improved access to the Charles River waterfront.
The opportunities to improve public transit, reduce traffic congestion, and reclaim so much land are the most promising parts of the project — and that’s not what the advocates and MassDOT are still fighting over. Rather, it’s how to handle the eastern edge of the construction zone. Known as “the throat,” it’s where the Mass. Pike, Soldiers Field Road, a heavily traveled bike and pedestrian path, and two railroad lines squeeze through a narrow area near the BU Bridge.
Right now, that’s about where the highway starts rising onto the viaduct. One of the state’s options is to replace it with a new structure. But ABC and neighborhood advocates would like everything at ground level, to avoid erecting a new eyesore that divides the river from the area.
One of Pollack’s proposed alternatives does just that — but to make everything fit, it requires moving the bike path and some of Soldiers Field Road onto what is now the Charles River. The advocates counter that by slightly narrowing lanes and shoulders on the highway, the state could fit all road surfaces on what is now dry land. The bike path could go on a boardwalk in the river, not solid fill. Alternatively, it could go on an elevated structure above Soldiers Field Road that leaves the river totally untouched.
These arguments quite literally come down to feet and inches. Pollack says she doesn’t want to shrink the shoulders on the Pike because that would make them less safe, and one of the purposes of the project is to make that stretch of highway safer.
And then there’s the river. Although Pollack herself is considering plans that encroach on the river, she also warns that getting a permit for anything in the Charles River is no walk in the park. Earlier this year Kathleen Theoharides, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said, “My agencies would consider any intrusion into the river excessive, especially if there are alternatives without any intrusion.”
Well, maybe. But as Pollack acknowledges, no permitting decisions have been made. That portion of the river is not its natural bank, and improvements in the area could leave the river in better shape, not worse. Environmental groups have signed onto a letter saying they’re okay with some small incursion into the river. Despite all the time that’s been spent to date on the project, its scale and lifespan make it worthwhile to at least study the possibility of keeping roads out of the river while building a bike and walking path that goes over it.
Pollack is clearly frustrated with the slow pace of the project and has made two veiled threats if stakeholders fail to reach consensus. The first is that the state could choose the viaduct option — and the second is that the state could abandon the whole project and just patch up the existing viaduct.
It’s hard to believe she’d really pull the plug on the project, but she’s right that it’s time to reach consensus. The at-grade solution that MassDOT offered isn’t exactly what ABC and other critics wanted, and the state ought to give serious consideration to the boardwalk and elevated walkway ideas. And with so much good that could come from this project, the critics should keep an eye on the big picture, too.
Above all, an infrastructure project that could bake in how people commute and travel to the city and within it for the next several decades should not be a retrenchment toward the past, but a bold vision for the region’s future that accounts for the changing climate and that prioritizes cleaner transportation and riverfront access over cars.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.