After signaling that Boston help pay to rebuild the Massachusetts Turnpike through Allston or risk losing many of the project’s benefits, state transportation officials softened their stance Monday, suggesting they will strongly consider the option but not outright require it.
The long-planned $1.3 billion megaproject would shift the highway where it curls toward Brighton and add a transit station, freeing up acres of land owned by Harvard University for new development.
Last week, state officials unveiled a proposal calling for Boston to use some of the property tax revenue expected from the real estate development to help pay for the project and suggested Harvard increase its already sizable financial commitment to the redesign, the largest roadway project in Greater Boston since the Big Dig.
Otherwise, under the proposal, the state would likely move forward with a much smaller version of the project that simply repairs the aging Mass. Pike viaduct in its current place.
The state’s transportation oversight board was slated to vote on that proposal Monday but instead backtracked slightly. Rather than saying the project “must include” this type of third-party funding, board members instead approved language that the state “must examine” the option.
State officials have said they want to convince cities to contribute more funding to major transportation projects, and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack cited the $75 million contribution from Somerville and Cambridge to save the Green Line extension in 2016 as a precedent.
But Joseph Aiello, chairman of the MBTA’s board of directors, raised objections about forcing Boston to contribute to the Allston project. While he said he was not opposed to potentially using this funding mechanism, he argued it would be “unacceptable” and “disturbing” to make it a requirement for a major infrastructure project this early in the process.
“Are we going to be telling somebody in East Boston eventually that they can’t get an extra school teacher because the city of Boston had to put money into an interchange on a roadway that they never use?” he asked at a marathon board meeting of the MBTA and state transportation department.
Aiello also warned the requirement could be politically controversial, landing the the state “in the middle of a” hotly contested mayoral race, as Mayor Martin J. Walsh plans to depart to become Labor Secretary in the Biden administration.
City Councilor Michelle Wu, who is vying to replace Walsh, spoke against the proposed requirement Monday, suggesting it threatened a “bold, transformative, multimodal” project. Walsh administration officials have also questioned the state’s financing proposal, arguing officials should look instead to the federal government for funding.
Boston’s role is just one of many political considerations at play in the project’s financing. For example, state lawmakers recently authorized $250 million in borrowing for the project but included language that prevents raising tolls to fund it. That was a priority of Senate president Karen Spilka of Ashland, who represents MetroWest commuters who rely on the Turnpike and has long said it is unfair that other major highways do not have tolls.
That legislation is awaiting Governor Charlie Baker’s signature, but Pollack celebrated its passage at Monday’s meeting.
MBTA officials, who in December approved systemwide service cuts in response to low ridership during the pandemic — also said Monday they would restore some of those cuts using some of the nearly $300 million they expect to receive from the latest federal coronavirus relief bill.
Most of the cuts will still go into effect, including sharp reductions in ferry and weekend commuter rail service later this month. But the MBTA expects to put as much as $17 million toward keeping some of the bus and night-time commuter rail trips that were slated for elimination. Officials did not detail the specific changes.
The T expects to use up to another $178 million to backfill its capital budget, which it had previously planned to tap for daily operations. Some of that funding will help pay for improvements at the Winchester Center commuter rail station, which was abruptly closed last week because of structural issues.
The rest of the federal money will be set aside for future budget issues, which will hinge on how quickly and regularly riders return to the system after the pandemic. The state transportation department also expects to receive about $150 million in federal funding but officials said Monday they will hold the money for future needs.