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Planning Musings

MassDOT Must Build West Station Now

MBTA Commuter Rail trains Arriving into North Station in February 2018 – Author’s image

This is the text of the letter I sent to Matthew Beaton, Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, in response to the Draft Environmental Impact Review for the I-90 Allston Interchange project in Boston.

Massachusetts must strive to achieve the Commonwealth’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and by 80 percent by 2050. Governor Baker and Mayor Walsh have committed to these goals and both have signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement. I welcome their support. This project to reconstruct the Mass Pike in Allston is a tremendous opportunity to advance their commitment to the Agreement and our goals to reduce emissions.

According to a November 2017 article in the Boston Globe, transportation emissions now account for 40 percent of our Commonwealth’s greenhouse gas emissions. The recent flooding in the Seaport, North End, and West End in Boston as well as in communities to the north and south demonstrate that climate change is occurring today and that words without action are no longer enough. As outlined in the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), the Allston Interchange project ignores this reality and prioritizes cars over all other modes of transportation. Doing so not only abdicates our duty to address climate change, but also undermines Imagine Boston 2030 and Go Boston 2030 as well as the Boston Planning and Redevelopment Agency’s I-90 Allston Interchange Placemaking Study.

At least 12 lanes of highway and hostile, high-speed surface road pass through the project area. At a time when cities—like Paris along the quays of the Seine—are reclaiming their riverfronts for people not roads, this project aims to leave Soldiers Field Road untouched—as the same uninviting barrier to access the sliver of remaining riverfront parkland. The eight travel lanes of the Pike, themselves a historic mistake born of removing a pair of railroad tracks along the Framingham/Worcester line right-of-way, would be straightened, increased, and widened. Compounding these failures of imagination to reclaim this tremendously valuable land for people not cars is a half-hearted nod toward multi-modality by promising West Station in the distant, unfunded future of 2040. We must do better.

Let’s learn from Brighton, where the New Balance-funded, Boston Landing station is surpassing ridership expectations and fostering transit-oriented development. Last month, the adjacent Stop & Shop unveiled plans to transform the site into a walkable street grid, 1,050 homes, 300,000 sq. ft. of office space, a 67,000 sq. ft. grocery store, 50,000 sq. ft. of restaurant/retail space, and a community park. This development will replace an existing one-story, 100,000 sq. ft. building and 207,000 sq. ft. of impervious pavement. The current site is inhospitable to walking and provides less retail space and no housing, office, or park space. Most importantly, this project was not envisioned during the planning of Boston Landing.

Instead of learning from the sustainable development booming around Boston Landing, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) has preferred to derail West Station. MassDOT claims that ridership would not justify the expense until development in the former railyard is already well underway. However, the ongoing transportation challenges in the Seaport expose this delay as folly, with the unimproved Silver Line unable to cope with the transportation demands from new residents, visitors, and commuters. Harvard University recognizes the value of investing in sustainable transportation now. The University is pledging $58 million towards the construction of a multi-modal transportation hub at West Station, including funding for a barebones interim station. Boston University has offered support in the past, and would likely commit funding again if asked today.

I am well acquainted with the value of commuter rail. I was born in Framingham and lived in Ashland for the first 18 years of my life. My dad commuted and still commutes to Boston along the Framingham/Worcester Line. With my family and as an adolescent I relied on the train to visit Boston. In college, I commuted to a downtown internship by train and today I reverse commute using the Lowell Line. Our region is fortunate to have purchased these lines and to have the bones of a mass transit system that many other parts of the United States could never imagine building de novo today. Sadly, our region still bears the trauma of evicting residents to clear homes and businesses to construct I-93, to widen the Pike, and more. This project presents an opportunity to bolster our existing transportation system without following the same car-oriented mistakes of the past.

To move forward, I fully support the nine recommendations outlined by the People’s Pike in the organization’s comments on this draft DEIR—to build West Station now and reconstruct I-90 at grade (among others)—and the advocacy by the Charles River Conservancy and Walk Boston to improve access to the Charles River. Beyond their recommendations, I urge you to compel MassDOT to consider alternatives to managing congestion on the highways and roads that devastated Boston when they were first widened and remain a scar on the urban landscape. Preserving, let alone expanding the number of travel lanes for cars, is not acceptable.

MassDOT must evaluate the potential for congestion pricing and/or dynamic tolling to manage demand while improving traffic flow. Existing lanes should not be deemed sacrosanct and eternal. The tiny park space along the Charles at the throat could just as easily be expanded by reclaiming land from Soldiers Road versus building boardwalks or adding infill to the Charles River. New streets built in this developable land must be at a human scale: no wider than two travel lanes with on-street parallel parking and street trees lining ample sidewalks. Plans should also accommodate the reactivation of the Grand Junction Railroad to provide better access to Cambridge and North Station from rail service along the Framingham/Worcester Line. We must envision and then deliver a project that will facilitate sustainable transportation choices: on foot, bike, bus, or train.

Your office must ask MassDOT to submit a Supplemental DEIR to address and resolve these deficiencies. Squandering this moment is unacceptable.



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