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Harvard pushes for consensus on controversial Mass. Pike rebuilding

With a stalemate threatening to undo much of the project’s promise, the university wants the state to seriously consider a business-backed compromise.

The Massachusetts turnpike from over the Boston University bridge.
The Massachusetts turnpike from over the Boston University bridge.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

After a lengthy silence, Harvard University has waded into the contentious debate over the $1 billion rebuild of the Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston, urging state officials to give a close look at a potential compromise design pushed by a business organization.

Harvard is a major stakeholder among the many parties involved in the long-running plan to rebuild the highway: It owns a vast stretch of former rail yards at the western edge that would be opened up for new development by straightening the highway where it now loops toward Brighton and beyond.

But it has been more agnostic about the contentious fight over the section of highway just to the east known as “the throat,” where the turnpike narrowly runs between the Boston University campus and the Charles River. Officials and activists have for years battled over various options to squeeze the eight-lane highway, the four-lane Soldiers Field Road, commuter rail tracks, and the Paul Dudley White bike path into the throat section, but have yet to reach a consensus.

Faced with a potential stalemate, Massachusetts officials in June suggested rebuilding the current aging viaduct similar to its current form, though with several important differences. That has done little to placate critics who argue a viaduct of that size effectively walls off the Charles River from adjacent neighborhoods.

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Now Harvard is suggesting the state give a “fair and robust evaluation” of a proposal that would put all of the infrastructure at grade, Kevin Casey, a senior advisor at the university, said in an interview.

Casey did not explicitly endorse having all the roads and paths built at ground level; rather, he said the proposal from the business group, A Better City, should be given a thorough hearing to help “generate broad support for an option that minimizes impacts on the river and improves safety.”

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A similar at-grade option is already under consideration, but it requires building a roadway over the river. A Better City’s plan would squeeze both roadways, with narrower lanes on Soldiers Field Road and thinner shoulders on the turnpike, with less impact on the Charles. This version would require moving the current bike path onto a boardwalk out over the river, as well as modifications to the riverbank.

The city of Boston has also said the state should consider this version, rather than the one with wider roads.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the state is taking A Better City’s idea seriously, meeting with the group and city officials to discuss it. But she said it needs to be fleshed out with crucial details, such as determining how to handle storm water or where exactly the boardwalk would go.

“Right now there are some interesting ideas that obviously a lot of people find attractive,” she said. “But I would not yet say it is even a full-fledged proposal. There just aren’t enough specifics.”

State officials are considering a third option that would put the turnpike at ground level, but elevate Soldiers Field Road onto a small viaduct. A decision on the final design is expected this fall.

Many activists favor the at-grade idea because it would make it easier to access the river via footbridges and eliminate elevated roads from the area.

Harvard has reason to see a consensus emerge. Pollack has said that if the throat debate isn’t resolved, the state could simply move to repair the existing highway viaduct and drop plans to straighten the highway or build a combined rail and bus hub in the Harvard area called West Station. That would jeopardize the development plans the university has already spent millions preparing.

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Casey said the many years of planning should give officials pause before taking such a drastic step.

“It is our greatest hope that all of the progress that has been made thus far, all of the support for West Station and other matters, will alleviate the risk that we retreat to a proposal that simply repairs the viaduct in its current location,” Casey said.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.