Build For The Future, Don't Repair The Past

OP-ED | Boston Business Journal | Rick Dimino, President & CEO 

If you’ve taken the Mass Pike into Boston, you’ve ridden the relic — the elevated viaduct carrying eight lanes of traffic that snakes between the Boston University campus and the Charles River. It’s a throwback to 1960s highway design that divides our communities and hinders our region’s full potential. 

The old viaduct is nearing the end of its useful lifespan, and the commonwealth is assessing new configurations that not only improve the Pike but also enhance mobility, safety and access more broadly. And after more than five years of debate, major business and civic leaders agree: The “modified all at-grade” design is the best choice for this project because it is the best choice for the future of our region.

The all at-grade design would tear down the existing I-90 highway viaduct, place the highway on ground level, create a living shoreline to beautify and restore the riverbank, and replace the narrow Paul Dudley White path with a new boardwalk that separates pedestrians and cyclists and provide sweeping views of the Charles. Additionally, tearing down the viaduct and replacing it with a straighter, flatter surface road would be safer for drivers and easier for the state to maintain, while reducing roadway noise and pollution in adjacent communities.

Still not convinced? Construction would be less disruptive to drivers and transit riders, faster to complete, and cheaper than replacing a viaduct lane-by-lane while the roadway remains in service.

There is overwhelming support for the modified all at-grade — more than 90% of public comments submitted to MassDOT in October were in support of the design. A Better City was part of a coalition of more than two dozen organizations that urged then MassDOT Secretary Stephanie Pollack to select the all at-grade design as the Preferred Alternative to carry forward in the environmental review process. Sen. Markey, Rep. Pressley, Boston Mayor Walsh, Cambridge City Manager DePasquale, the Boston City Council, the Cambridge City Council, 19 Boston and Metrowest-area legislators, and 11 Worcester-area legislators agree.

Despite this clear consensus, in November, Secretary Pollack announced that MassDOT would delay the preferred alternative decision until summer 2021. Secretary Pollack also indicated that MassDOT may abandon the broader megaproject and instead pursue a “substantial repair option” to patch up the existing viaduct for a decade. In the near term, this would mean no new West Station for the Framingham/Worcester commuter rail lines, no new boardwalk along the Charles, and no new development opportunities — just an exorbitant Band-Aid on the old highway viaduct. 

The substantial repair option would be an immense waste of taxpayer dollars. In fact, the commonwealth would likely spend upwards of $200 million on temporary repairs to the viaduct, potentially disrupting traffic and transit for several years and yielding nothing but a patched-up structure that would need to be replaced in 10 to 15 years. A delay of this magnitude would also increase future project costs of a more permanent solution by more than 50% due to increasing construction cost trends.

Moreover, the substantial repair option is often mischaracterized as a “no build” option, but it’s really a "double build" — with all pain and no gain. By rejecting the will of the people and refocusing on a temporary repair, the Baker administration is threatening to consign drivers to not one disruptive construction project but two.

With Secretary Pollack’s departure, Acting Secretary Jamey Tesler has an opportunity to refocus on advancing the modified all at-grade design. Consensus of this magnitude is rare — and we encourage Gov. Baker to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to tee up this transformative project for funding under the Biden administration, which is poised to make record investments in infrastructure.

Boston and the region deserve better than dithering and doubling down on the mistakes of the past. 

This piece ran in the Boston Business Journal on Wednesday, February 17, 2021. To read the official print, click here

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