The potential for a future West Station is enormous: a transit hub planned for a former railyard that could knit together parts of Boston and Cambridge with new train and bus options.
Could the state Department of Transportation end up squandering that potential?
That question comes up repeatedly in comment letters sent last week to state and federal highway officials regarding the massive Mass. Pike realignment in Allston, destined to cost more than $1 billion. The straightening of the Pike is currently undergoing an environmental review with the Federal Highway Administration. West Station would be a key part of this decadelong project.
The biggest sticking point? MassDOT’s current plans call for a station served by three tracks. Transit activists and city politicians prefer four: two tracks for the existing Worcester commuter rail line, and two others for new passenger train service along the Grand Junction route, over the Charles River to Kendall Square’s offices, and then on to North Station.
It wasn’t that long ago when the Grand Junction was just a dream held by a few transit geeks. Now, MassDOT has actually baked it into its West Station plans. Time to celebrate? Not quite. Grand Junction fans say the state’s approach would allow for only infrequent service. Many people want 15-minute headways instead, along the lines of the MBTA’s own “Rail Vision” plan approved by the T’s oversight board last month.
In the state’s current plans for a three-track station, some trains from the west would shift onto a West Station track, while two express tracks would bypass it and continue along to South Station. Most commuter trains on the Worcester main line would probably whiz by in that scenario. The two-track Grand Junction route would also bring trains – presumably smaller, electrified ones – to and from Kendall Square. But overlapping tracks in this scenario could cause scheduling difficulties.
The four-track option for West Station, meanwhile, involves both the two Worcester tracks and the two Grand Junction tracks; express trains could still barrel through without stopping, but supporters say that dedicated inbound and outbound tracks for the Worcester and Grand Junction routes would make for far more dependable, frequent service connecting the western suburbs with Kendall and downtown.
These proponents include Harvard University, which owns nearly 150 acres south of its business school in Allston — including the land where West Station would be built. Harvard has pledged up to $50 million for the station. (Next-door Boston University would kick in another $8 million; a MassDOT spokeswoman now says West Station could cost up to $150 million.)
Harvard said it also wants to ensure what it calls “placemaking decks” are built above the tracks and the highway alongside the West Station and the Pike realignment projects, rather than afterward. The university would likely do so by working with a private developer interested in building next to the new station.
Harvard says its partnership with MassDOT has been predicated on a four-track West Station. Harvard’s concern: that a three-track option could create a permanent bottleneck, limiting the viability of the future Grand Junction line.
The Walsh administration echoed Harvard’s sentiments. Three of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s top aides signed a letter saying the three-track station would “cement in place inferior rail service” in a neighborhood that’s badly in need of better transit. A three-track station, they argue, would mean some kind of sacrifice: either fewer direct connections from points west to Allston, Harvard, and BU, or fewer direct connections from Allston to MIT, Kendall, and North Station.
Many business leaders view West Station as a crucial relief valve. That’s particularly true in Kendall Square; commuters from most western suburbs need to take a roundabout route to get to Kendall today by public transit. For that reason, driving remains a tempting option.
Kendall Square Association president C.A. Webb says public support has grown significantly in Cambridge for passenger service on the Grand Junction — as the bridges, streets, and Red Line cars in and out of Kendall get more crowded. With its proposed busway, West Station could also offer a new way for Kendall biotech workers to get to the hospitals in Longwood. But intermittent service would not be enticing.
In justifying the three-track option, MassDOT says it wants to avoid slowing things down for existing commuters who ride along the Worcester line. State officials also want land next to West Station to park trains at off-peak hours. But advocates say they don’t see a four-track station getting in the way of these goals.
On Monday night, a MassDOT spokeswoman offered some hope for a new path: She said in an e-mail that the project team is “reassessing the 3 track station and a 4 track configuration” to ensure West Station is robust enough to accommodate the frequent service laid out in the Rail Vision study.
These letters of commentary about the Pike project make one thing clear: West Station represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We should get it right, before plans get too far down the tracks.