AMID STRONG PUSHBACK from neighborhood activists and others, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack on Monday defended the Baker administration’s decision to put off until at least 2040 the construction of a new transit station serving an emerging neighborhood being developed by Harvard University in Allston.
Pollack, at a joint meeting of the boards overseeing the T and the Department of Transportation, said she welcomed input on so-called West Station and the state’s plan to straighten the Massachusetts Turnpike near the former Allston tolls and replace a badly deteriorating section of the Pike near Boston University. The state’s proposals are part of a draft environmental report that is currently out for public comment.
But Pollack repeatedly pushed back against the arguments of neighborhood residents, transit advocates, and public officials who said West Station is needed at the beginning of the development project, not 23 years from now. The secretary said the proposed station would attract few riders and would undermine efforts to provide midday layover space for commuter rail trains. She also said there is no funding set aside for the station.
The fight over West Station is rapidly becoming one of the flashpoints in state transportation policy, raising the question of whether a transit station must go hand-in-hand with transit-oriented development or whether it can be added as the development nears completion. Harvard is looking to build a new neighborhood in Allston that feeds off and reinforces the research and innovation taking place on campus and at nearby institutions, including the Longwood Medical Area, Boston University, and MIT. The neighborhood would stretch from Western Avenue in the north, near Harvard Business School, down to where the Turnpike will be relocated near Boston University.
In its environmental report on the project, the state characterized West Station as a local, neighborhood-oriented station serving commuter rail riders who live within a quarter mile and are looking to travel to Back Bay, South Station, Logan Airport, or Yawkey Station.
But Allston residents and transportation advocates see the station as much more. They envision a station that provides commuter rail service east to Boston and west to Newton and other communities along the Worcester Line. They also hope the station can provide rail access to Kendall Square and points north via a rail spur now used only for nonpassenger traffic. And they see West Station as a way to coordinate bus service in the area, particularly north-south travel running from Harvard Square to Boston University and the Longwood Medical Area. (Both those options are discussed in the state environmental report but not included in the project as currently drafted.) [Correction: Initially, the story mistakenly talked about rail access to Kenmore Square when the correct destination was Kendall Square in Cambridge.]
A slew of neighborhood residents, public officials, and transportation advocates testified on Monday, urging state transportation officials to develop West Station in tandem with the creation of the new Allston neighborhood. Harvard and BU officials did not testify.
Rep. Michael Moran of Brighton said construction of the Boston Landing commuter rail stop was started before major development began around the New Balance headquarters and transportation should come first in Allston as well. “Transportation comes before development,” he said.
But state officials said their computer model forecasts that West Station would serve only 250 commuter rail riders and 2,900 bus riders in 2040, when the new neighborhood is expected to have 7 million square feet of new space developed. Pollack said the state could ultimately decide to build West Station early on in the development process, but the facility is not needed to mitigate traffic impacts in the area.
Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a member of both the MassDOT board and the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, said she didn’t believe the state’s projections. “I don’t see how that’s possible,” said the Cambridge resident. “There’s a traffic problem there now.”
Tibbits-Nutt said she thought the ridership projections for a pilot project to extend daily commuter rail service to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough were higher than the West Station numbers. It turned out she was wrong; the pilot is expected to generate 150 new riders at Foxboro Station.
As other members of the two boards began to question the ridership projections, Pollack acknowledged the state’s computer model isn’t perfect. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you the model is perfect, especially in 2040,” she said. “It’s the only model we have.”
Joseph Sullivan, the mayor of Braintree and a member of the MassDOT board, said he favored building West Station as part of phase one of the project (which begins in 2020) and not part of phase three (2040).
Pollack warned that there is no funding set aside for the station, which is expected to cost between $89 and $96 million. Sullivan responded that giving priority to West Station now would compel Boston University and Harvard to step forward with funding, the same way New Balance did with Boston Landing.
Pollack said BU and Harvard agreed to provide two-thirds of the funding for the station when its price tag (and size) was much smaller — $25 million. A state official later clarified that BU agreed to provide $8.3 million for the station, while Harvard has agreed to cover a third of the cost. Harvard officials say they continue to stand by their pledge, even with a station with a higher price tag.
Another complicating factor is the need for midday layover space for commuter rail trains that make their morning runs and then need to wait somewhere until the evening commute. The current plan calls for layover space for eight trains in Allston initially, expanding to 16 during phase two of the project around 2030. In phase three, around 2040, the layover space for the original eight trains would be removed and West Station would be built in its place.
Sullivan said he worried that once the layover space is built it will be difficult to remove it to build a transit station. Sen. William Brownsberger of Belmont also said he worried about putting off the station for so long without an “ironclad” commitment to build it.
Alana Olsen, a resident of Allston, said it feels like giant institutions (Harvard, BU, and the state) are negotiating among themselves and ignoring the plight of residents in the area. She said the neighborhood is badly congested now and will only get worse with all the coming construction and development. She said the neighborhood needs West Station now, not at some distant date in the future.
“West Station should probably be the first thing we do,” she said.