Harvard, only you can save West Station
State Representative Michael Moran thinks Harvard should put up more money for West Station, the $95 million proposed transportation hub in Allston. Sure, “elected official thinks rich university should pay for it” is the “dog bites man” of town-gown disputes. But there’s no way around it. He’s right.
Moran’s district includes much of Brighton and Allston, including the site of a massive project that would take down a decrepit Mass. Pike viaduct, straighten the highway, and free up dozens of acres, now owned by Harvard, for new development.
It would be insane for the state to treat this project purely as a highway job. But the Massachusetts Department of Transportation — not least because of a lack of money — wants to delay construction of an accompanying transit station until 2040. Which is to say, maybe forever.
In a public comment letter also signed by other elected officials representing Allston and Brighton in the House, Senate, and Boston City Council, Moran urges the state to “monetize the total benefits” to Harvard — the “single biggest beneficiary” of the Pike realignment — to guarantee the construction of West Station sooner rather than later. In other words: While Harvard has already committed to covering a third of the station’s cost, the state should hit the school up for the majority of it.
Elected officials in Allston have always gotten an earful over Harvard, as the university has bought up land and then dithered for years over what to do with it. The prevailing attitude among his constituents, Moran said in an interview, is “When do we get something back?”
Even if you don’t share his skepticism about Harvard, this much is clear: There’s a logjam in Allston that a ragtag band of transit activists can’t fix. The area’s elected legislators can’t fix it either.
But Harvard can.
In putting off West Station, MassDOT is on the verge of making a colossal mistake. The state says it needs to start dealing with the aging viaduct and doesn’t have the money for the station; the City of Boston is waiting on Harvard to clear up its plans; and Harvard says that, with the Allston site tied up in construction for the next eight to 10 years, it’s too early to know how all that land might develop.
Yet, as the traffic in Boston’s burgeoning Seaport District makes depressingly clear, transit delayed is transit denied. Without a clear commitment up front to build West Station, the highway project may lock in a lower-density development pattern that limits the economic value of the Allston property. But with a strong transportation network in place at the outset, the potential is endless.
Harvard officials have noted that the school has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Allston project. The option of replacing highway ramps with a transit-rich employment hub only opened up because the school endured long, complex negotiations with the state, the railroad company CSX Transportation, and others. That’s laudable, but it only underscores Harvard’s power to end the current impasse.
It’s easy enough to imagine creative financing schemes — for instance, a special taxing district on the Allston land — that would keep West Station moving along without too much pain to the university. Plus, if Harvard committed more money, it might also jar loose further contributions from Boston University, which previously pledged about $8 million, and other sources. And it would surely promote better relations with neighbors in Allston.
In general, the Greater Boston region, which might otherwise have become the eastern end of the Rust Belt, shouldn’t take its universities for granted. Yet there are some problems that only an institution like Harvard can solve. It would be a shame if the university stood aside as a major transit hub — the key to an urban vision for Allston — fell victim to bureaucratic inertia.