A proposal to build a new Allston rail station — an ambitious idea that could link Cambridge, Allston, and downtown Boston with speedy train service — will remain dormant for now, MassDOT officials say, because there is not enough money to pay for it in the budget of a related highway project.
For months, talk of a new transit hub on the commuter rail line, tentatively called West Station, has been causing a stir among transportation advocates. The station could be built on land freed up by the imminent reconfiguration of the Allston section of the Massachusetts Turnpike, and some hoped the new transit hub would be pursued as a component of the expansive highway interchange project.
West Station was included in a map released in January by MassDOT, portraying the agency’s “Vision for the MBTA in 2024.” The West Station transit hub would provide extra stops on the Worcester commuter rail line, allowing people to make a direct trip from South Station or the Back Bay to Allston Village in less time than the Green Line takes.
But now, some fear West Station may end up on the cutting-room floor.
At a Wednesday meeting of the I-90 Allston Interchange Task Force — a group of local residents, business leaders, and transportation advocates helping to advise the project — a MassDOT official announced that the cost of constructing a new rail station would not be part of the $260 million budget.
It was a quick about-face, said Brent Whelan, who lives 100 yards away from the Massachusetts Turnpike. MassDOT officials had previously presented the West Station opportunity as if it were a likely outcome, he said.
“I went home from the previous meeting thinking, ‘Wow, this is really going to transform this community in a great way,’” Whelan said. “So it was disconcerting to hear that it was sort of a fantasy.”
The Massachusetts Turnpike realignment project affects the stretch of the turnpike that curves sharply at the Allston tolls, as well as the surrounding 60-acre, triangle-shaped plot of land bounded by Cambridge Street, Soldiers Field Road, and a railyard owned by Harvard University.
In a statement, MassDOT spokesman Mike Verseckes said construction of a new Allston rail station could still happen in the future but the agency has no immediate plans to make the project a reality.
“It’s not out of the question,” he said. “The design of the realignment of the interchange is being done in a manner that will not preclude construction of a future station in this location.”
“Long term, the MassDOT Capital Investment Plan does envision a station in this area in the future,” Verseckes said. “However, at this time, there is no funding specifically designated for construction.”
The Allston Interchange project is estimated to cost $260 million and construction is expected to begin in 2017. Most of that money will go toward straightening the spaghetti-like stretch of the Massachusetts Turnpike interchange near Allston, improving its structural reliability, making it safer for motorists, and allowing for the introduction of open-road tolling. The project also includes pedestrian bridges to allow better access between neighborhoods in Allston and bike facilities that could make the area much safer for cyclists.
Some think that if West Station fails to become reality, the state’s transportation agency is dropping the ball on fulfilling its stated mission of using big-budget construction projects as an opportunity to improve facilities for all modes of traffic.
Jessica Robertson, a member of the Allston Interchange Task Force, said she believes the station should be built in conjunction with the highway reconstruction.
“For a lot of people in the room, the attitude is this: If you’re going to spend a ton of money and do a whole lot of construction, and disrupt traffic patterns, let’s do it all at once,” Robertson said. “Let’s really, truly make this a multimodal project and improve things for everybody at the same time.”
Verseckes pointed out that the Massachusetts Turnpike realignment project would still help improve public transit service by providing extra storage space for trains mired in congestion in the middle of the day. The project will also feature improved bike and pedestrian facilities.
Some transportation advocates had hoped that a new commuter rail stop could dovetail with the MBTA’s plans to purchase DMUs — smaller, individually motorized rail cars that could provide trolley-like service on commuter rail lines. With those vehicles and a new commuter rail station, the agency could also run from Allston on existing freight rail tracks that travel over the Charles River, straight into Kendall Square, and on to North Station. It would be a game-changing transit link.
Advocates say they are also concerned about the accelerated timeline of pinning down the final plans for the project. They say MassDOT officials are trying to get as much done as possible before Governor Deval Patrick leaves office at the end of this year, because it is unclear whether his successor will support such a vast, and costly, project.
They fear that if the commuter rail station does not become part of the design now, it will be left by the wayside.
“Frankly, to do all this work to reconfigure auto routes and not think of the transit link is really bad news,” Whelan said. “It suggests a serious lack of coordination.”
The next meeting on the Allston Interchange project is scheduled for June 11 at the Josephine A. Fiorentino Community Center in Allston.