ROADS ARE NOT THE DESTINATION: Celebration and Concern on the MassPike (Allston-I-90) Project

As our nation has painfully learned over the past fifty years from the destructive practices of the Interstate’s old scorched-earth invasion, focusing a transportation planning process on the need to satisfy car traffic trends is dangerous. (Full disclosure: I live in a house that was supposed to be ripped down for construction of the stopped-at-the-last-minute Inner Belt highway.) It’s a bit like the stories about the surgeon who announces that the operation was a success although unfortunately the patient died. Other than in romantic road movies, mobility is not a goal in itself. We move in order to accomplish something. Transportation is simply a means to an end.

So we in the Commonwealth can be proud that MassDOT’s 2006 Highway Design Guide was a national leader in its inclusion of pedestrian and bicycle facilities and its insistence on Context Sensitive approaches – designing a road starting “from the outside” of the right-of-way then “working inwards” to the road itself, meaning taking into account both the nature of its surroundings and the space needed for sidewalks and bicycle facilities.   The even more assertive subsequent (and also nationally admired) policies – the Healthy Transportation Compact and Directive, the Greenhouse Gas Reduction goals and GreenDOT program, the Mode Shift and Transportation Oriented Development Initiatives – all build on the strengths of the Design Guide. These policies recognize that while car travel is and will continue to be a vital part of many people’s daily lives and our state’s economic activity, our future prosperity and well-being depends on our ability to re-balance our lopsidedly car-centric transportation system and investments by putting a lot more attention (and money) into transit, bicycling, and walking facilities.

Of course, we’ve all sworn to ourselves to change an old way of doing something, only to fall back into old patterns soon after.   Going from decision to habit – or from policy to implementation, and then to institutionalized default – requires paying attention, not giving up, and a willingness to correct the inevitable missteps. It requires accepting that transportation design must be used as a tool for moving us towards a desired future rather than simply a reflection of current trends. Which is why what’s happening with MassDOT’s Allston-I-90 Realignment Project, a quarter-billion dollar project creating a major Gateway into Boston and Cambridge, is both heartening and worrisome.

MASSPIKE AND ALLSTON

The Allston-I-90 Realignment Project is a massive pump-priming investment that will unleash a huge amount of economic development on Harvard’s Allston properties while escalating the Harvard-expansion-influenced changes in the nature of the surrounding neighborhoods. It has the potential to either facilitate or block future regional transit expansion and to relieve or intensify traffic congestion and dangerous conditions along Cambridge Street. It could increase the area’s amount of and public access to open space and river-front areas. It could re-connect North Allston with Commonwealth Avenue, or not. It will also reduce the curve in the Mass Pike (I-90), fix the MassPike’s deteriorating elevated viaduct over Storrow, and finalize the replacement of the toll booths with electronic pass-throughs – the centrality of that road to commuters has already been shown by the uproar over the delays caused by nearby repairs to the Pike’s Commonwealth Avenue underpass.

It’s not like MassDOT policy doesn’t set a broad enough context.  The state’s GreenDOT policy – which will hopefully survive the next governor’s inevitable need to put his own stamp on the transportation program – is a national model. It not only commits the Commonwealth to find ways to dramatically reduce the energy use and the negative environmental impact of the transportation system but to also make its own operations as energy-efficient and environmentally undamaging as possible. In one presentation, the “purpose of the I-90 Allston Interchange Project” is explicitly stated as being to “further the goals of the Green DOT Policy: to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, promote the healthy transportation options of walking, bicycling, and public transit, and support smart growth development.” That’s as good as it gets; the issue isn’t the high level vision, it’s how those 10,000 foot views evolve as they come down to street level.

The non-road details are where the asphalt meetings daily life. So it’s not surprising that from the perspective of many in the Allston community the road work itself is just about the least important result of the project. Yes, the MassPike is a vital corridor for cars racing through the area; but in addition to the pollution spewing from those cars into the air and water, the on-off ramps have just as vital an impact on the nature of the surrounding areas. Nearby residents, people in adjoining neighborhoods in both Boston and Cambridge, major institutions including Harvard and Boston Universities, and major employers such as New Balance whose massive development is going up nearby – all these, as well as people concerned about public health or our parklands or our area’s ability to handle the ravages of climate change – realize the enormous impact of this project not only on traffic flow but on the area’s quality of life and economic success.

And the local stakeholders, particularly the “People’s Pike” community group that was the driving force behind MassDOT’s creation of a project “Stakeholder Task Force” have worked with (and pushed) MassDOT to make a long list of important improvements to the agency’s original plan. Originally, MassDOT’s Project Team simply wanted to fix the collapsing viaduct, move the Pike, preserve enough of the old CSX rail yard to serve as a maintenance yard and lay-over area for the MBTA, and throw in a couple of arterial (highway-like) off ramps to Cambridge Street.

Because of community input and pressure, the on-off ramps will be less highway-like and slightly narrower than initially proposed. A new rail station (“West Station”) will be built with at least pedestrian and bicycle access from both the Allston and Packards Corner (Boston University) sides; Cambridge Street will have a Complete Streets design; there will be a “People’s Pike” with separate bike and pedestrian paths from around Lincoln Street to the Charles River; there will be a direct route from the Pike exit to Soldiers Field Road which will be moved a bit away from the river where the river path is currently most narrow. While MassDOT has announced few design details for these components, and advocates remain concerned that they will be done well, getting commitments for these changes was an enormous victory as well as a welcome sign of the slow influence of MassDOT’s policies on actual work.

THE ROADS MUST ROLL

However, at the same time, MassDOT’s engineers have repeatedly shown that their starting point is the highway. Their highway proposals are detailed, data-driven, and comprehensive. Everything else is sketched in. While they’re willing to adjust things around the edges, it’s clear that getting automotive traffic flows right is their primary concern; pedestrian and bicycle flows will be figured out after they have determined their preferred auto design. It’s what they’ve been trained to do. It’s what they’ve spent their entire careers doing. It’s their official scope of responsibility, their schedule is tight, and even by itself the road work is going to be expensive. And, after all, this is all happening because of the need to fix the TurnPike’s deteriorating elevated pavement.   But just because you’re a wielding a hammer doesn’t mean that every problem should be treated like a nail.

The People’s Pike community group has been unable to get MassDOT to budge on using this opportunity to do more than token expansion of the Charles River parkland. (Advocates have developed plans showing that Storrow Drive could be easily moved up to 50 feet, creating a new “Allston Esplanade.” And volunteers from the Boston Society of Architects have already conducted a creative charrette exploring possible land-use layouts for the area, but MassDOT has refused to bring these “outsiders” into the official process.) The on-off ramps are to be built on three-story-high berms, creating new barriers across the undeveloped land and making human-scale street-facing future development much more difficult. MassDOT has refused to include any foundations for a deck over the Pike and railroad tracks, needed to truly knit the two sides of the neighborhood back together. Neither are the designers willing to commit to creating the desperately needed 2-track railroad “Grand Junction” bridge over the Charles or include a connection from the People’s Pike and the Charles River bike path to Cambridge. And MassDOT is insisting on widening the Pike’s viaduct in a way that will require a permanent taking of Charles River parkland. Most frustratingly, MassDOT has disbanded the community-based Task Force, implying that it’s listened enough and has no intention to make additional changes – even before there’s been serious discussion about how to mitigate the enormous construction-period disruption.

In the opinion of the “People’s Pike” Community Group none of the requested additions or design improvements would disrupt future traffic flow along or on/off the Pike. And all are needed if the project is “to build a new street network that improves the environment and creates the framework for a new neighborhood with homes, offices, parks, and shops surrounding the new West Station, while also eliminating the toll booths and the decaying turnpike viaduct.” When Boston was creating the Back Bay, the first thing built was the Public Garden – it was the presence of that public facility that set the tone for and unleashed the investment in the rest of the area. The state needs the same kind of vision for the Allston Rail Yards area – start with the things that make it a great place to be, don’t create a transportation system that precludes the area’s open-space value, the investment will follow.

Even though land-use decisions are not officially MassDOT’s responsibility it is likely that agency leaders have their own ideas about how the surrounding land should be best used and equally likely that these quiet assumptions are influencing their road design choices – making these explicit and public would help the Task Force understand the reasons behind MassDOT’s plans as well as provide a chance for the public to discuss (and probably improve) them.

Of course, complicating the situation is Harvard’s unclear plans for the roughly 90 areas of land in the MassPike and Rail Yard area east of Cambridge Street. The University now owns nearly 360 acres in Allston, including about 65 acres of just-starting-to-be-developed land in the “Science Innovation” section between Cambridge Street and Western Avenue. An organization whose planning horizon extends 50 or more years into the future may not have developed specific ideas for this newest addition on the far fringe of their land. But, ironically, the community’s vision of a green area with a rich array of bike/ped paths, an accessible transit station, and low-speed car roads extending all around is totally compatible with almost any kind of future development Harvard may want – from dormitories to office space, from research labs to a spin-off start-up area, while various aspects of the current MassDOT proposal might foreclose certain options. Harvard’s silence – at least its public silence – suggests a lack of attention that will only hurt its own interests in the long run.

STARTING WITH THE END IN MIND

A transportation planning process should start by establishing what is trying to be accomplished – not in terms of the nature of the road or the rail line or the bike path but in terms of the surrounding area, population, and economy. This means general goals such as livability, opportunity, equity, sustainability – as well as the specifics appropriate for the location and set by public policies such as reduction of greenhouse gases and mode shift.   This process starts with broadly participatory public discussions that deal with the needs of both the adjoining and regional populations. The entire public input process would probably benefit from the participation of professionals outside the transportation field – city planners, landscape architects, environmental engineers. It is only with this broader vision in place that that the Highway Engineers will be able to figure out the road (and rail and path) designs that best express and facilitate the desired results.

High quality development – sustainable, livable, attractive, affordable – can only survive on a foundation of high quality transportation. But high quality transportation reaches that level by starting with the understanding that its primary role is to serve the desired future development and the people living and working in existing communities surrounding the project. In terms of the Allston project, while maintaining the continued smooth flow of traffic along the Pike and into/out-from the surrounding areas is very important, equally important is the project’s impact on its neighborhood and its success in laying a foundation for the multi-modal development of the region’s future transportation system.

Despite its good policies and words, MassDOT has not yet operationalized methods that incorporate the understanding that transportation planning needs to start by understanding the type of land use (and community life) that is trying to be achieved, and then work backwards towards the type of transportation facilities needed to enable the desired future.

MassDOT was originally working with a tight schedule in order to be able to submit the required Environmental Notification Form (ENF) before the close of the Patrick Administration. In fact, they turned it in on October 31, so it is not clear that there is any other looming deadline that forces this project to march so quickly towards a conclusion. There is now time to stop and rethink some assumptions about what’s needed and what’s possible. The process may bring state planners back to where they are today; it’s more likely that they’ll end up with something much better.

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Thanks to Harry Mattison and Jessica Robertson for their corrections to previous versions of this piece.

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Related previous blogs:

> ALLSTON-BRIGHTON ON THE MOVE: Boston’s Most Transportation Changing Neighborhood

> MASS PIKE EXITS: Master Key for Unlocking Boston Roads from Esplanade to Allston

> MassDOT’S HEALTHY TRANSPORTATION POLICY DIRECTIVE: Framing Economic Needs as Public Health Measures Strengthens Both

> A NOTE FOR THE NEXT GOVERNOR: Travel is the Least Important Thing about Transportation

This entry was posted in Commentary & Analysis, MassDOT Transformation, Road Design, ROAD DESIGN AND MODE CHANGE, STREET LIFE & LAND USE. Bookmark the permalink.

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