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Allston project could put Walsh, Baker administrations at odds

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh has planted his support firmly behind a design that lowers the highway, but the state has shown less enthusiasm

An aerial view of Mass Turnpike at Allston
An aerial view of Mass Turnpike at AllstonDavid L. Ryan

After years of back and forth over the region’s next big transportation project, a growing slate of stakeholders is pressing state officials to run both the Massachusetts Turnpike and Soldiers Field Road parallel to each other at ground level along the Charles River.

One of them carries a decided amount of sway: Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

The Walsh administration has been quietly — but increasingly firmly — voicing support for this version of the long-debated project in recent months. Walsh has also stated his opposition to a competing proposal that would build a new viaduct to carry the highway through Allston, similar to the one there now.

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In a letter last month, Boston chief of streets Chris Osgood and Brian Golden, director of the Boston Planning & Development Agency, told Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack that the city’s “strong desire” is that the state back the version that lowers the Turnpike and Soldiers Field Road to ground level.

Only "the all-at-grade option takes down the visual barrier that has stood between our residents and the river for generations,” they wrote.

The configuration of the two major roads, as well as four railroad tracks and a bike and walking path, in a narrow area bounded by the Charles and Boston University remains the project’s major sticking point. The idea of putting everything at ground level has won the support of several community groups, advocacy organizations, and BU, mostly because it would most easily allow pedestrian connections over the roads to the river.

The state, in coordination with federal officials, is expected to choose a preferred configuration later this fall, though the other versions will still advance to the next phase of study as alternative options.

Walsh has directly appealed to Baker on his design preference, city officials confirmed.

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Walsh’s support bolsters the campaign for the at-grade concept. But if he fails to convince state officials, who have long indicated they are lukewarm to the idea, it could set up a rare clash between Walsh and Governor Charlie Baker’s administration.

“I think it’s very significant. This project is located totally within the boundaries of the city of Boston, and the city is taking a clear position of what it wants and doesn’t want,” said former transportation secretary Fred Salvucci, who played a leading role in planning the Big Dig and now supports the at-grade version of the Allston project.

“The mayor has every political motivation to really insist on this,” Salvucci added, noting the widespread support for the at-grade proposal with two city councilors planning to challenge him in next year’s election. “If the mayor’s not satisfied, he’ll get much more vocal.”

But state officials have been reluctant to embrace the at-grade concept, saying it would create a permitting headache because it would likely require some construction in or over the river. Pollack and other members of the Baker administration have said in recent months that building a new viaduct would avoid these issues, which some have taken as a hint that this option is the front-runner.

In an interview Thursday, Osgood, the city’s top transportation official, declined to say what would happen if the state chose to keep the Mass. Pike elevated. He said discussions with the state have been fruitful so far, noting that Pollack recently agreed to study a new version of the at-grade design that may be easier to permit.

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Osgood listed several reasons the city prefers the at-grade version, saying it would be easier to mitigate noise compared to elevated traffic, less expensive to maintain over time, and easier to adjust the design in the more distant future. Between the Big Dig and the Casey Overpass near Forest Hills, the trend in Boston over the last quarter-century has been to remove elevated roadways, he added.

“You see the change that removing an elevated structure can provide, just from an urban design perspective,” Osgood said.

Jacquelyn Goddard, a spokeswoman for the state transportation department, downplayed a potential conflict with the city, noting that Baker and Walsh administration officials have “periodic conversations” on a range of policy issues. Walsh has previously criticized the Baker administration over MBTA fare increases, and pushed for the MBTA to add a seat to its governing board to represent the city.

Any discord in Allston may signal more about the difficulty of building the project than the state of Walsh-Baker relations, said Jeffrey Berry, a Tufts University political science professor who follows local affairs.

“The fundamental problem is the sheer complexity of this project,” Berry said. “It involves a lot of very powerful stakeholders. ... I don’t think there’s a personality conflict here. It’s just that getting to yes is quite difficult.”

But Walsh’s preference on a project as massive as Allston could carry significant weight, because federal officials may feel hard-pressed to approve a design that the city opposes, said Rick Dimino, president of the business group A Better City, which has worked with the city on the at-grade design.

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“At this juncture, we do not understand how MassDOT and the [Federal Highway Administration] can proceed with a highway viaduct option in defiance of the host jurisdiction’s wishes,” Dimino wrote in a recent letter to Pollack.

Depending on the final design, the project would cost between $1.3 billion and $1.6 billion, according to the most recent state estimates. A funding plan has not been developed.

The state is considering a third option that would ground the Turnpike and put Soldiers Field Road on a smaller viaduct above it. That compromise was anointed the favorite by Pollack nearly two years ago, but lost support because a temporary road would need to be built over the river for several years during construction.

Massachusetts officials have also dangled a fourth idea: to simply repair the existing viaduct, which is beginning to crumble, while scrapping the rest of the project, like building a new rail station and straightening the highway where it bends through Allston. That would cost nearly $450 million.

Pollack has warned that the state may choose this option if the state and the many advocates involved in the planning — a roster that prominently includes Walsh — can’t come to a consensus.


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