As many in the Boston area await an infrastructure project that would replace an Interstate 90 viaduct through Allston and increase public transit access in the area, members of the metro west legislative delegation warned on Wednesday that the project will need to be done with care to not disrupt commuters who live west of the city.
The city of Boston and the state have long aimed to replace the aging highway bridge with two ground-level highways, to align rail tracks and build an MBTA/commuter rail station that would serve as a transit gateway to metro west. It's been over a decade since discussions on the project started, and estimates of a nearly $2 billion cost would rely in large part on federal funding.
While the project may still be far off -- especially as state officials last month directed $85 million to make safety repairs to the viaduct, despite local opposition that further investments might delay plans to replace the traffic-heavy bridge -- lawmakers raised concerns about the lack of a mitigation plan for when construction starts.
"I've said before, when this was first presented, any plan for this project must include increased reliability, frequency and affordability on the commuter rail during the construction and after if this is going to go forward," said Senate President Karen Spilka of Ashland, who represents a powerful voice for the region in her leadership role.
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At the 495/Metro West Partnership's advocacy day at the State House, Spilka said there is already an "unfair financial burden" placed on metro west commuters, who largely get into the greater Boston area by the commuter rail, which they say is unreliable, or driving on the Massachusetts Turnpike. Unlike other highways into the city, the turnpike has tolls -- the "bane of our existence," Spilka said.
"The project would probably take eight to 10 years construction time, so think about having to drive through a construction zone for eight to 10 years, " said Rep. Hannah Kane of Shrewsbury. "We need to make sure that when this project happens, that we are considered as part of it."
Kane said the state's metro west delegation plans to push for the commuter rail to keep the two tracks they have now, instead of going down to a single track during the construction period.
Another one of the sticking points Kane anticipates is whether to shrink I-90 from four lanes down to three lanes, not just during construction but as a permanent feature of the highway. She said some environmental groups are pushing to reduce the number of lanes to incentivize commuter rail ridership, since the new West Station will make public transit more accessible.
"The reality is we can't go down from four to three lanes because of the volume of traffic," she said.
Kane also said the metro west delegation will have to stand up for commuters, whose concerns may "conflict" with development opportunities on the roughly 90 acres on the Charles River waterfront.
"There's a really strong and functioning Boston delegation who's really focused on the site and what's going on there, and it's not that they're not concerned about what impacts us as commuters, but their priority is what is going to be built on the site. Sometimes those two things conflict," she said.
While concerns over the impacts of the multimodal project loom on the horizon, the 495/MetroWest Partnership also outlined their other legislative priorities this session that have to do with transportation.
Mainly, they would like to see commuter rail improvements.
While the MBTA lags behind its pre-pandemic ridership, and other urban transit systems around the country, passengers are flocking to the commuter rail in growing numbers.
But lawmakers and metro west groups say the service is not reliable. They are asking for "safe, reliable rail service that includes all-day bidirectional service (supporting traditional commuting patterns, 'reverse commute,' and non-traditional schedules)" as well as enhanced opportunities for employers to support employees who use the commuter rail, increased parking and ADA compliance at rail stations and "well-maintained and up-to-date railway infrastructure."
Kane also said commuter rail fares need to be competitive with how much it costs to drive into or out of the city, to provide an affordable alternative to single-occupancy vehicle commuting.
"It can't be cheaper to drive to Boston ... we need to make sure that we're incentivizing people to use public transportation," she said.