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State signals that Boston, Harvard need to help pay for Mass. Pike project in Allston

Officials are counting on outside help as they develop a funding plan for the $1.3 billion project

Allston would be the site of the city's biggest highway project since the Big Dig.
Allston would be the site of the city's biggest highway project since the Big Dig.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

State officials are increasing pressure on the City of Boston and Harvard University to pony up more money for the $1.3 billion rebuilding of the Massachusetts Turnpike through Allston, suggesting they would cut back the project significantly without additional contributions.

The call for money came during a meeting of transportation officials on Wednesday to begin developing a financing plan for the mega-highway project. They suggested that the municipalities and institutions that stand to benefit the most from the project should foot a “substantive” share of the bill.

“It’s important that, with this project, there’s a fairness involved, and that the beneficiaries of the investment are helping to pay for the ultimate capital improvements,” Scott Bosworth, the state Department of Transportation’s chief strategy officer, told an agency committee on Wednesday.

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It would be the largest roadway project in Greater Boston since the Big Dig, with potential to reshape part of the city. But the financing question is but one of many challenges that have bedeviled state officials, who have spent years planning the project to replace the dilapidated viaduct along the Charles River that carries the turnpike.

Despite numerous meetings and draft versions, the Baker administration has yet to reach a consensus among community groups, environmentalists, transportation advocates, and neighboring institutions on a design. This large group of stakeholders has gone back and forth over configurations that would have either the highway or adjacent Soldier’s Field Road on a new elevated section or at ground level.

Other parts of the project are less controversial: straightening the long highway section that curves into the Allston interchange, which would open acres of Harvard-owned land for redevelopment; adding a transit station with a commuter rail stop and connections to cross-town bus service; and building bike paths.

But on Wednesday, state officials indicated that all of those big ideas could be in jeopardy if third-parties that would benefit from them don’t chip in. Otherwise, they said, the state would probably move to just patch up the viaduct and abandon the rest of the job.

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The DOT’s oversight board is expected to review an initial financing plan next week. It includes wording that funding must include “substantial value sharing contributions from municipal, private, and educational partners.”

Betsy Taylor, vice chair of the board, said the state can use toll money to do a simple repair of the viaduct, which she identified as the highest priority, because it is at risk of becoming unsafe.

“The rest of the project is an expansion project. It is highly desirable, but it is not essential. Repairing the viaduct is essential,” she said. “If we are indeed to fund this highly desirable expansion project, we need support from those whose land it will be built on, and those, such as the city, who receive the tax benefits from the structures and economic activity that will occur on this land.”

These kinds of hints aren’t new; state officials have suggested for years that Harvard, for example, should step up its financial support. The university has stressed that it already pledged up to $58 million for the new transit station and that it spent millions more to purchase the land and remove old rail lines.

Harvard officials would not say if they were willing to contribute more. But they did urge the state not to back away from the larger plan.

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“As always, we look forward to continuing to participate in the process ahead, and to helping to realize the vision that’s been set forth for this transformative project,” Harvard said. ”Given the years of constructive public process, we continue to hope that MassDOT resists the inclination to revert to any of the no-build options,” a reference to the plan to repair the existing structure.

Meanwhile, Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets, said that “repairing the viaduct rather than advancing the more transformative project will delay needed and long-awaited investments in transit, open space and economic opportunity.”

However, he suggested that the state instead look to the federal government for funding. His comments came just hours before it became public that Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh will be nominated to be the Biden administration’s secretary of labor.

The state is allowed to use toll revenue to pay for the highway portion of the project, but not for non-highway aspects like the transit station and bike infrastructure. The Legislature this week offered another partial funding source, authorizing up to $250 million in borrowing to pay for planning and “early-action” work.

On the design front, the state has long argued that it would be easier to replace the viaduct with a new one, while most interest groups, as well as the city, strongly prefer putting the highway at grade level.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack last year extended a deadline on a final design until mid-2021, though she hinted that further stalemate could prompt the state to push off much of the work for another decade and repair the viaduct in the interim.

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Pollack has also cautioned that stakeholders could sink the project by asking for more additions, such as operating new passenger-train service on an old rail bridge that crosses the Charles. Under the financing plan her department is proposing, third parties would be required to pay for any additions.