State officials agreed Wednesday to move forward with an $85 million project to make safety repairs to the Allston I-90 viaduct, despite local opposition that further highway investments might delay eventual plans to replace the traffic-heavy bridge.
The repairs will target places where the aging bridge near Boston University has structurally deteriorated, replacing its existing concrete overlay, broken and corroding deck joints, and some of the bridge's barrier railings. The Mass. Department of Transportation feels it is important to begin making these "critical" improvements as soon as possible, said MassDOT civil engineer Michael O'Dowd.
"Based upon the ongoing investigations and inspections that we've been doing out there, we feel it is in the best interest of the agency to move forward with this interim repair contract to identify, not only identify, but to address, more importantly, to address and repair some of the steel deterioration we've seen out there. In some instances it's critical," O'Dowd said at a MassDOT board meeting on Wednesday.
The board voted 7-1 in favor of the project, with Tim King voting against the contract to move forward with the repairs.
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King voted in opposition after local advocates spoke during the meeting's public comment period that there had not been enough communication with Allston stakeholders. Members of the public added that it didn't make sense to repair the viaduct the state is preparing to remove, and worried that investing in the bridge would cause delays to its eventual removal and replacement with a more transit- and walking-friendly area.
"Honestly, no one really understands what MassDOT is doing with this repair project, and why you're seeking to spend $100 million to repair a viaduct you're also planning on tearing down in just a few years," said Allston resident Harry Madison, a member of the I-90 Allston Task Force.
The contract granted to J.F. White Contracting is for $71.6 million, though the total project cost with added funding for contingencies, traffic police and other services, is closer to $85.7 million.
The engineers would begin with work underneath the bridge structure until April 2024, to avoid traffic disruptions along I-90. The total construction is estimated to take a little over three and a half years, with work directly on the highway and on the MBTA Commuter Rail performed during nighttime/off peak hours.
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, and to add a pedestrian boardwalk at roughly the same elevation next to the Charles River. 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.
The city and state jointly applied last fall for $1.19 billion in federal funding for the Allston Multimodal Project through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, but were unsuccessful. A MassDOT spokesperson said the department intends to pursue other grants.
The MassDOT website for the multimodal redevelopment of the area includes an outdated timeline that says construction to replace the viaduct with the ground-level highways, rail and walkway will begin in the fourth quarter of 2023 or early 2024, and last six to 10 years. King said on Wednesday that the board has talked before about a 2045 completion date for the multimodal project. With repairs to the bridge now approved that will likely go into 2026, he said he understands local advocates' concerns about further delay.
"Today's proposal to fortify obsolete infrastructure will further delay the viaduct removal and is not a wise use of our public funds. For more than 60 years the viaduct has divided Allston's neighbors, separated us from the river and brought us the often untold damage of pollution, noise, and urban decay. And as this section of the Turnpike is approaching the end of its life, we ask that the DOT not shore up mistakes of the past," Glane Mook, executive director of MassBike and member of the Allston I-90 Task Force, said during public comment.
The contract approved on Wednesday allows MassDOT to make changes to the scope of the work at any time, highway administrator Jonathan Gulliver said.
The highway department is currently reviewing proposals sent by stakeholder engineering groups that draft an alternative construction schedule and plan, which may allow for earlier removal of the Allston viaduct, Gulliver said. The department received these proposals a few weeks ago, he said, and plans to provide an update to the board at its May meeting about possible contract changes that would allow them to make necessary repairs while not delaying future redevelopment.
Though King encouraged the board to wait to approve the contract until these news plans could be considered by the department and board, O'Dowd said there was not time to wait until May and lose a few months of Boston's construction season on such critical safety repairs.
"This is, as you've heard, a preservation project. And I just want to be very clear, when we say preservation, that is an industry term to describe these types of projects," Gulliver said. "When we say preservation in this case, it should not be thought of as preserving the viaduct indefinitely, that is not the intent. What it should be thought of is we are preserving the safe, structural capacity of the viaduct so that it can get to that next stage where it can do that large multimodal project."