The Baker administration is now proposing to rebuild the Massachusetts Turnpike and Soldiers Field Road at ground level through Allston, a pivotal decision that would unlock a vast swath of land for development and potentially resolves years of negotiation over Boston’s largest pending highway project.
The megaproject — now estimated to cost $1.7 billion — would straighten out the long curve in the highway through that part of the city, build a new transit station on the adjacent Worcester/Framingham commuter rail line, and open up around 100 acres of land, primarily a former railyard, owned by Harvard University, for development in Allston.
The price tag includes building new streets in the area, as well as a new commuter rail maintenance facility, likely placed out in Hyde Park, and reconstruction of the Grand Junction train bridge over the Charles River. State officials say they will press Harvard and the City of Boston to pay for portions of the project, and expect to use some toll revenues collected from within Route 128. They plan to advance design plans quickly enough to take advantage of prospective federal infrastructure funds, now under debate in Congress.
“We see an opportunity right now with the potential for other funding,” said Jamey Tesler, the state’s transportation secretary. “We want to have the hard conversations we need to have so we don’t miss the window.”
The decision, unveiled Wednesday, aims to resolve a lengthy impasse over how to rebuild the highway and fit the train tracks and Soldiers Field Road through a tight area between Boston University and the Charles River known as the “throat.” For much of the past decade, state transportation officials have tried to reach a consensus among various stakeholders, including community members, activists, and the two universities, over how to replace the aging and deteriorating highway viaduct, particularly without building roads out over the river.
Many of the stakeholders had opposed any new elevated roadways, which they said would continue to act as a barrier, blocking off the river area.
“We have heard people loud and clear on what they want to have happen here,” Tesler said. “We think it’s time to move forward and focus on the hard conversations on how to pay for this project.”
By reducing the highway’s shoulders in certain sections and using a roughly 7-foot-wide stretch of land provided by BU, the new design would squeeze eight lanes of the turnpike, four lanes of Soldiers Field Road, and four rail tracks at ground level on land, while rebuilding the Paul Dudley White pedestrian and bike path on pilings over the river.
Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver said the state expects to begin the two-year design and permitting process this fall. Construction is estimated to take another seven years, Gulliver said.
Many aspects of the project remain up in the air, including the exact design of the new $180 million transit stop, called West Station, and the pedestrian bridges that would reconnect Allston with the river. Harvard has committed $50 million for a new, permanent West Station, and BU has pledged at least $8 million.
And Harvard’s plans for its land that would be freed up for development, known as Beacon Park Yard, are also unclear. Resolving the design of the throat will allow the state to finalize some things, Gulliver said.
“This clears the deck for us to focus on those other elements of the project,” he said.
The new design marks the latest chapter in the project’s tortuous history. In 2019, for example, the state Department of Transportation said that it would demolish the I-90 viaduct and build a new overpass for Soldiers Field Road, over part of the new ground-level turnpike. But objections arose when it became clear that the plan required building a temporary roadway in the river.
The near-decade delay in getting the project off the ground required the state to commit $75 million for steel and concrete repairs to the crumbling I-90 viaduct earlier this year, with the repairs slated to be done by 2024. At the time, some advocates for lowering the highway worried the decision eased pressure on the Baker administration for an at-grade design. But state transportation officials said Wednesday that they are committed to pursuing that option as quickly as possible, in part to take advantage of any federal funding that could become available.
“They’ve turned the page,” said Rick Dimino, president of the A Better City business group and a vocal advocate for lowering the highway. “Now the work is to maximize the benefits of this, there are so many things to incorporate, but at least we are starting with the right alternative.”
The ground-level option allows Harvard to build above the tracks and West Station itself using air rights. The university’s plans for the area remain unclear. Scott Bosworth, the state’s transportation undersecretary, said Harvard representatives have told state officials that the area around West Station would be the first part of Beacon Park Yard to be developed.
On Thursday, Harvard spokeswoman Brigid O’Rourke praised the state for making progress on a “generational opportunity for greater Boston and beyond.” She said lowering the highway would have several benefits: neighborhood connectivity, additional green space, and economic potential.
“Harvard looks forward to continuing to work closely with the Commonwealth as this work advances in the months ahead,” she said in a statement.
The university is already moving forward on what it calls its Enterprise Research Campus, across Western Avenue from the business school and to the north of the Pike realignment. Harvard’s designated developer, New York firmTishman Speyer, is advancing plans for 1.9 million square feet there, which are not reliant on the Pike realignment.
State Representative Mike Moran, who represents Allston, welcomed the choice of design for the highway realignment.
“It’s much more appealing than a towering piece of metal hanging over your neighborhood,” he said. “It gives us opportunities to make better connections, and to connect better with the rail [line].”
While Moran has been an outspoken critic of Harvard’s handling of its development plans, he acknowledged that having one primary landowner should help city and state officials design a neighborhood that avoids some of the shortcomings of the recently built Seaport district, which largely sprang out of old parking lots on the South Boston waterfront.
“We can’t make the same mistakes that we made on the waterfront,” Moran said. “The next mayor [of Boston] has a unique opportunity to have influence over the project and to do it in a way that checks all those boxes of transportation, affordability, and sustainability.”
The Baker administration’s decision was hailed by Acting Mayor Kim Janey and the Boston Planning & Development Agency. The ground-level option has been a priority for Janey and former mayor Martin J. Walsh before her. In a statement, Janey and the BPDA said removing the highway will unlock economic benefits, reduce long-term capital costs, and lower a barrier between residents and the river.
There are still aspects of the plan that have critics. The Charles River Watershed Association is not happy that the bike and pedestrian path will be moved into the river, citing disruption of sediment and harm to the ecosystems.
“River intrusion is river intrusion, particularly when there are 12 lanes of roadway that are unnecessary,” said Emily Norton, the association’s executive director.
Another unresolved environmental question involves resiliency. The Federal Highway Administration has raised concerns that the at-grade highway option could make the turnpike susceptible to flooding. Gulliver said state transportation officials are confident that an agreement can be reached that will satisfy the FHA’s concerns on flooding issues by the end of the year.