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BU offers more land in hopes of breaking logjam over Mass. Pike project in Allston

$1 billion highway reconstruction along Charles River could be done without a new viaduct

The Massachusetts Turnpike and Soldiers Field Road along the Charles River.
The Massachusetts Turnpike and Soldiers Field Road along the Charles River.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

Hoping to break a stalemate over the $1 billion plan to rebuild the Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston, Boston University is offering more of its land to help the state squeeze the giant project into a constricted section alongside the Charles River.

Even at only a few feet wide, additional land could help the state reconstruct the Pike and adjacent Soldiers Field Road without erecting a new viaduct or extending the highway over the river — options that generated so much opposition that state officials went back to the drawing board this year.

“In an area where feet, and perhaps inches, may be the difference between a workable and an unworkable solution, Boston University is committed to doing the utmost to accommodate these infrastructure improvements,” its president, Robert Brown, wrote to Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack this month.

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BU hopes the land from its campus would provide enough room to move construction work inland from the river while squeezing in the eight-lane turnpike, four-lane Soldiers Field Road, two adjacent rail lines, and a riverfront recreational path — all at grade level. It’s a version backed by many advocates involved in the planning and by the administration of Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

Brown did not say how much property BU could turn over but noted that encroachments must “not limit our ability to use and operate the buildings” on its campus. BU spokeswoman Rachel Lapal pointed out that the state was already planning to take a strip of land seven feet wide, and school officials had previously told the state it could have more.

The business-backed nonprofit organization A Better City, which has championed putting everything at grade level, says as much as 12 feet of land in the area may be available without affecting BU’s facilities.

The tight area behind the BU campus, nicknamed the throat, has been the focus of years of debate, as officials and activists toggle between several options to get all of the needed infrastructure to fit. One option would replace the turnpike viaduct with a newer one; another would bring the highway to grade level but raise Soldiers Field Road on a new, smaller viaduct.

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Many advocates have long favored putting everything at grade level, to eliminate hulking roadways and ease direct access to the riverfront for pedestrians and bicyclists. State officials have warned that this approach would be difficult to win permits for because it may require building into or over the river.

Yet the state itself has already yielded some, saying recently that it will consider a design promoted by the City of Boston and A Better City to squeeze in everything at grade by reducing the width of the shoulder lanes in an earlier plan proposed by the state, while adding plant life to the riverfront and a boardwalk to carry the bike path.

Rick Dimino, president of A Better City, called the state’s concession “a major victory.”

“I believe now the Commonwealth is poised to build a truly transformative project,” he said. “This could be Governor Baker’s infrastructure legacy.”

But this is hardly the last word: The state is continuing to study other designs, including those that would put the highway or Soldiers Field Road on a viaduct.

“That doesn’t really change the next step in the process, which is we still have to compare the now-improved version of the all at-grade" to the other design ideas, Pollack said Tuesday.

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She is expected to announce a preferred option in November, though the evaluation of other options is expected to continue even beyond that.

Emily Norton, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association, said it will continue to oppose elements that would negatively affect the Charles. Even the version backed by A Better City and Boston requires too much construction in the river, such as boardwalk pilings, she said.

“Our mission is to protect the river, and we’re going to protect the river,” Norton said.

Dimino said BU’s offer could further help avoid impacts on the river, as would narrowing Soldiers Field Road’s traffic lanes. City officials have also argued that the at-grade option would reduce long-term costs, because it would require less maintenance than a viaduct would.

Earlier this year, Harvard University also called for the state to consider the all-at-grade design pitched by the city, arguing that a consensus must emerge. The school is another major stakeholder in the project, though mostly more to the west, where plans to straighten the turnpike where it loops toward Brighton would open space for development by Harvard. the school.


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