In Allston, the transit lesson we never learn
It was bad enough the first time that Boston — in the 21st century — built a whole new neighborhood while totally forgetting to include enough bus or rail service. This was in the Seaport, where lousy transit has encouraged traffic, pollution, and segregation.
Now the same thing is about to happen again in Allston, except maybe worse.
Transportation amnesia strikes once more: In Allston, the state transportation department plans to remove a decaying Mass. Pike viaduct and straighten out the highway, freeing up dozens of acres for redevelopment by Harvard. Just as the Seaport did, the area known as Beacon Yards (or Beacon Park Yard) offers a rare chance to fill in a missing chunk of Boston’s urban environment.
Unfortunately MassDOT is defining the Allston project, whose budget is likely to top $1 billion, mainly as a highway job. According to the latest timetable, a crucial transit improvement — a new bus and train hub called West Station, with a cost of $95 million — won’t be built until 2040.
At a public meeting Monday, state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack cited the lingering question marks about what Harvard might end up building in the area. “We’re not going to be in a position to know for sure what development is going to look like,” she said, “at the time that we have to lock in a design for this [Allston] project.” Ultimately, she said, what gets built is up to the City of Boston and environmental regulators, not MassDOT.
But here’s the thing: If MassDOT builds West Station in the distant future — or not at all — that decision will profoundly shape what happens in Beacon Yards, and not for the better. The Seaport shows how public transit, unless planned well in advance, will lag far behind private development. In just a few years, conditions there grew so dire there that a nutty gondola over traffic-choked streets strikes some people as a smart idea. By 2040, Beacon Yards may already look like a suburban office park, with all the vehicular gridlock that approach entails.
In contrast, a densely developed, transit-rich Beacon Yards could help tie together the Harvard campus, Boston University, Kendall Square, and the Longwood Medical Area — areas that, for now, are like four separate islands. In this vision, West Station provides the crucial link.
But even in the home of America’s first subway, it’s far easier bureaucratically to let sprawl and traffic happen than to muster the civic will power to pay for buses, trains, and transit stations. We perceive the often stiff cost of transit investments far more readily than all the economic growth they support.
And, in a region where the population stagnated for years, and where a wariness about interlopers and profiteers runs deep, we’re still slow to grasp — much less harness — the transformative power of new development.
Buttressing the go-slow approach for West Station, MassDOT maintained that it needs the space for midday train layovers. (Of course, as transit activist Ari Ofsevit has pointed out, the commuter rail system wouldn’t need as much storage space in Boston if it ran more midday trains to the west — something the business community in Worcester would surely love.) The department also presented lowball ridership projections that pooh-pooh the benefits of West Station — but struck some of MassDOT’s own board members as preposterous. “I straight-up just do not believe this traffic analysis,” declared Monica Tibbits-Nutt, who herself is a transportation planner. “I just don’t.”
While a stripped-down version is possible, West Station isn’t a small investment. Still, Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh made multimillion-dollar concessions to General Electric on the theory that luring the company would yield long-term returns.
But as GE understood, Greater Boston’s single greatest economic asset is its ability to concentrate lots of brainpower in very little geographic space.
In Allston, the greatest public good lies in packing Beacon Yards with as much residential, commercial, and research space as the transportation network will support. Uncertainty about transit access puts a ceiling on how densely Beacon Yards can be developed — and on how much oomph the area can add to the regional economy.
That uncertainty isn’t MassDOT’s fault alone. The state might think twice about postponing West Station if City Hall were pushing harder for it. Walsh’s administration, while broadly endorsing Beacon Yards as a major new mixed-use area, has been waiting for Harvard to clear up its plans. Potential beneficiaries of the station — including the city, Harvard, and BU — might be also hanging back for fear of getting stuck with too much of the tab.
Yet that reticence could yield no station at all — and one more Boston neighborhood shaped more by the traffic-industrial complex than by deliberate transportation planning. Putting off decisions seldom yields better ones, as facts on the ground change for the worse.
In the Seaport, nothing happened for decades. Then, suddenly, everything did.