It took years of negotiation — and more delays than rush hour on the Mass Pike — to settle on a plan to fix the elevated section of the highway that loops around an old rail yard in Allston, but the state transportation agency has announced it is finally moving forward with a proposal to reconfigure and rebuild the old and deteriorating viaduct at ground level. It’s a massive, decade-long project, with a price tag of $1.7 billion, that would also free roughly 100 acres of land for reuse in Allston and help reknit a neighborhood that was separated from the rest of the city by the Pike’s original construction.
It is the right step in the right direction — and should free the city, state, and Harvard University, which owns most of the land in the area, to start thinking big about the transformative opportunities for new housing and economic development that the project will create. Making the most of those opportunities will be a major test, particularly in light of recent failures to create new and vibrant neighborhoods that offer affordable rental units, congestion-free streets, engaging architecture, and plenty of public transit options. No one should want to see a reprise of the failures in the boring, homogenous Seaport District.
The Baker administration’s decision comes after community activists had pushed back on some of the alternative proposals for replacing the crumbling 60-year-old Allston viaduct and straightening the Pike, which became possible after the rail shipper CSX stopped using the rail yard. The main technical challenge was around a narrow zone known colloquially as “the throat,” where the Pike (Interstate 90), Soldiers Field Road, an existing pedestrian and bike path, and railroad tracks all have to fit in a thin strip of land between the Boston University campus and the Charles River. One option was to build a new elevated part of the highway, but many neighborhood advocates opposed that idea because it would have blocked off the river. Most favored an at-grade option, but differed on how it should look; some environmental activists favored eliminating a lane on the Pike, an option that was never realistically on the table.
The chosen proposal does move the pedestrian and bike path onto the river to be built on pilings, a solution that did not sit entirely well with some environmentalists. But that section of the river is not exactly a pristine wilderness. As other stakeholders have noted, the banks on that stretch of the Charles are man-made, and the river has seen many artificial improvements through the years. Pathways built on pilings can be beautiful additions to waterways, like the boardwalk on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, and there’s no reason to imagine the design wouldn’t work here.
In moving forward with the Allston project now, state authorities are hoping to take advantage of possible federal infrastructure dollars that could be approved by Congress to pay for it. That means tolls would not have to increase to fund the megaproject, which also includes building new rail tracks, a new rail station on the Worcester/Framingham line, and a new stretch of Soldiers Field Road.
In an old and crowded city like Boston, 100 acres of new land doesn’t come along too often. The state deserves credit for unlocking, for the most part, the impasse that had plagued the project for years. After a decade of obsessing over track configurations, shoulder widths, and other engineering details, the city, Harvard, and the other stakeholders in the area should now turn their collective attention to making the land a model for far-sighted urban planning.
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