Commuters across Greater Boston — and not just residents of Allston — would win out if MassDOT puts aside its reservations and commits to building a new multimodal train station there. Unfortunately, the Baker administration and MassDOT secretary Stephanie Pollack appear to be on the verge of a historic letdown, allowing nitpicky quibbles to get in the way of what should be an easy call.
Residents and major landowners in the area, including Harvard and Boston University, want a train station on the Worcester Line — and they’re willing to help pay for it. Harvard alone has offered $58 million toward the estimated $95 million cost, and BU has chipped in a smaller amount. A project to straighten the Mass. Pike in Allston will open up the space for the station, and provides a good opportunity to build when the area is a construction site anyway. Dubbed “West Station,” the facility would provide commuter rail access for development that sprouts on the reclaimed land, straighten bus routes in Allston, and set the stage for eventual rail service into the Kendall Square area of Cambridge.
In the overall context of the billion-dollar highway project, the state’s remaining share of the train station cost would be small.
Yet the most MassDOT seems willing to do is promise to leave space for the station to be constructed by 2040. The state says the need for a station hasn’t been demonstrated, and officials also worry about the effect of adding another station to trip times for commuters on the Worcester Line. The agency also feels the station isn’t legally required as mitigation for the highway project.
None of those excuses are convincing.
The warnings of the impact on existing riders feel more like speculation than fact, and recent experience casts doubt on the state’s doomsaying. A new Worcester Line station just opened in Brighton, and if there has been a drop-off in ridership because of the extra stop, the state should be able to document it. (It hasn’t.)
Regardless, the agency can also mitigate the impact through scheduling: Not every train needs to stop at the new West Station, just as not every train stops in Brighton. And it seems curious to use slow trains as a reason to deny service to more Massachusetts taxpayers: If MassDOT is concerned about travel times on the Worcester Line, it should be building high-level platforms at all stations that would let passengers board and exit trains more quickly.
And just because the station isn’t required as a mitigation measure for the highway project is no argument against doing it. Indeed, the state is already planning to include commuter rail layover tracks at the site — a project that also isn’t required. The massive highway project creates a rare opportunity. Yet by claiming that there is a lack of demand for the station, MassDOT is at risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Without a crystal ball, it’s impossible for anyone to know what will eventually get built on the land in Allston. But it’s safe to bet that whether the station is included will prove a key factor, influencing land-use decisions in the area. There’s a legitimate fear that without a station, those plans will veer away from the dense, housing-rich neighborhood that would help the whole state relieve its housing crunch.
A less dense neighborhood would, perhaps, create less demand for transit. But that would be no vindication for MassDOT. It would, instead, embody the agency’s failure to think pragmatically and strategically. The stars have aligned in Allston, and the private sector is practically begging to write checks to set the new neighborhood that will rise from the Pike project on the right path. The Baker administration should not pass up this opportunity.