Opinion
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    Dante Ramos

    In Boston, we’ll decode your DNA, but transit is hopeless?

    Boston, MA - 7/31/2017 - The eastbound Mass Pike traffic, left, is heavier than the westbound, viewed from the Allston footbridge off Cambridge Street
    Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
    Traffic on the Mass. Pike in Allston.

    In Greater Boston, sequencing and editing human DNA is easy. But getting you to work on time? Forget it. Unless Massachusetts can use CRISPR to take the pessimism and parochialism out of its politics, a commute to red-hot Kendall Square from Allston-Brighton and points westward will remain a mighty struggle.

    Fortunately, state representatives Mike Moran of Brighton and Alice Peisch of Wellesley are trying to re-engineer the dialogue on Beacon Hill — at least a little bit. They’re leading a new caucus of all the House members along the rail corridor from Kendall Square to Worcester. By presenting a united front, they can lobby the state to think big about West Station, a potentially game-changing Allston transit hub that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation wants to delay — while also pushing for broader improvements to the glitchy but essential Framingham-Worcester commuter rail line.

    There’s a divide-and-conquer quality to MassDOT’s arguments about West Station and the $1 billion Mass. Pike overhaul project of which the transit hub would be a part. Adding another rail stop in Allston too soon, the agency argues, will slow down riders from Framingham and Worcester. A second argument: Too big a splurge on infrastructure near the heart of metro Boston, where the economy is booming, goes over badly in other parts of the state.

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    Leaders of the new caucus aren’t buying it. “We’re trying to flip the script,” Moran says. “Instead of ‘We got ours, and you can’t have yours,’ we’re saying, ‘Why don’t we make ours better, yours better, and everyone’s better?’”

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    These days, there’s ample reason to focus on the upside. Greater Boston was riding high this past week, as members of the US Conference of Mayors descended upon Copley Square and the global biotech industry’s flagship event filled the convention center in the Seaport. After edging out New Jersey, Massachusetts now has more people working in life sciences than any state but California, a new report shows.

    Out on the highways leading to and from Boston and Cambridge, though, it was just another week of grinding, frustrating, ever-lengthening commutes. Planned equipment upgrades promise some relief to users of the MBTA’s four core rapid-transit lines. Still, for people who live away from those T lines — in communities from Allston to Worcester and beyond — the path forward is murkier.

    In its fullest form, West Station would be the center of a local transit network tying together Harvard Business School, Boston University, and the Longwood Medical Area; linking all three more easily to the Framingham-Worcester rail line; and, eventually, adding a passenger connection via the so-called Grand Junction to Kendall Square. The station will also maximize the benefits of the Mass. Pike project, which will free up dozens of acres for redevelopment.

    The jobs created there won’t go just to Allston residents, Peisch notes. “To the degree that development occurs [there], we want to be sure it takes account of all the people of the Greater Boston area, not just a small segment,” she says. “People who live in my community are just as likely to be employed in whatever gets developed there.”

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    The Allston project, Peisch says, can also be the impetus for a larger discussion about the future of the commuter rail system, whose reliability and service levels have troubled residents of her district for decades. And such a reappraisal doesn’t just help Wellesley. From Representative John Mahoney’s vantage point in Worcester, Boston looks like one of a small number of global super-cites (see also: New York, San Francisco) that are poised for further growth, and Worcester only benefits from faster, better connections to Boston. Getting the Mass. Pike project right — and giving people better alternatives to driving — is crucial to that goal. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says. He’s right.

    I admit it: I’ve been a broken record on this Allston project. But a city nearing its quadricentennial just doesn’t get many chances to remake a hugely congested transportation choke point in the middle of everything. We should not waste this moment. The Allston acreage, which Harvard owns, can become a dense, transit-centered, university-connected neighborhood — precisely the kind of place that turned the Boston area into a global innovation hub. So it’s frustrating to watch as the state lumbers toward replacing an old stretch of highway with a new one, while putting off the transit hub for a generation.

    One by one, elected officials and community activists are picking off MassDOT’s rationales for its approach. The last time I spoke with Moran, several months ago, he was pressuring Harvard to foot the bill for the deluxe version of West Station. The university promptly upped its commitment to $58 million — hardly a blank check, but enough to dispel MassDOT’s claim that there wasn’t enough money for the facility.

    Likewise, by launching the new Framingham-Worcester-Grand Junction caucus, lawmakers on either end of the rail line are showing that they won’t be divided up easily, and that intrastate grudges may not loom as large as MassDOT lets on. For Massachusetts to live up to all the nice stuff visiting dignitaries say about us, we can’t let trumped-up rivalries between different parts of the state hold back investments in our common future.

    Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.