Thursday, May 11, 2006

Harvard's transportation plans for Allston

Kathy Spiegelman, Harvard's Chief Planner for the Allston campus, spoke May 10 at a meeting of the Environmental Business Council in Boston. I was able to attend.

On regional transportation issues, Spiegelman said public transportation--commuter
rail and the Urban Ring--should connect to the Allston campus, on the theory it would allow the university to achieve the highest and best use of its property. And further, that what is good for Harvard is good for us all.

Harvard's Director of Physical Planning, Harris Band, had told a meeting in Allston on May 8 that Harvard proposes to move the Urban Ring west, to serve its Allston campus. Spiegelman's Urban Ring map did not show such a deviation. Instead, it had what I took to be Phase 2 ("Bus Rapid Transit") from Longwood Medical Area north, crossing the river on what might have been the Grand Junction rail bridge, with the addition of a spur to Allston, i.e., what looked like the reinstatement of a segment of BRT4 on the Mass Pike.

The map was freeform, possibly the one shown at I dwell on the lack of sufficient detail about the river crossing because both Spiegelman's and the website's map show either a connection from the Pike or from Storrow to the BU Bridge or from the Pike or Storrow to the Grand Junction rail bridge. With the exception of the Storrow inbound lane's ability to turn to Commonwealth Avenue at the BU Bridge, none of these connections is possible with the existing network of roads.

BRT 4 was a bus route that would have connected Pike traffic between Newton and Allston to Cambridge at Lechmere over a modified Grand Junction rail bridge. The T dropped it in June, 2003, even after Harvard announced its plans for the Allston campus, for lack of anticipated ridership. However, Cambridge strongly favored modifying the rail bridge for both BRT4 from the western suburbs, and BRT5 from LMA, to Lechmere. According to a Cambridge Development Department official at the March, 2006 Urban Ring Citizens Advisory Committee meeting, the city hopes this plan for the rail bridge will be reinstated.

Since BRT4 connects the Mass Pike to Cambridge and north toward I-93, any version of it resurrects the Inner Belt, the interstate highway connecting the Mass Pike and I-93 North cancelled in 1971.

To see whether Spiegelman's map showed, instead, a spurious version of the Urban Ring floated last year--light rail over the Grand Junction rail bridge--I asked her whether her Urban Ring map was for bus or rail. (All planning to date for Phase 3 has been for river crossing by tunnel only.) She said the Urban Ring was buses. When I explained Phase 2 is buses, Phase 3 is rail, she said that whatever the Urban Ring is, Harvard wants it for the Allston campus.

If Spiegelman's understanding of the Urban Ring is buses, I assume Harvard and Cambridge are working together to restore plans for this new Pike exit to Cambridge over the modified rail bridge, to be sold to the public as a dedicated BRT bus lane and a "public-private partnership" with Harvard. With construction of the Allston U-turn at the tolls this summer, the Pike Authority seems to be working for this as well. (, "Contract for Construction of Allston Turnaround Goes out to Bid This Weekend," 02/03/2006.) The Pike turnaround is being sold as an HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane.

As we know, any such "dedicated" route for BRT or HOV rubber-wheeled vehicles is suitable for all rubber-wheeled vehicles. It can be converted for general use when politically feasible.

After showing Harvard's proposed commuter rail stop near the tolls, Spiegelman commented that it would allow an improvement in the Pike ramps. Since the Pike Authority's turnaround would allow access for east- and westbound traffic to and from Cambridge over the modified rail bridge, the potential improvement allowed would be replacement of the current Pike exit to Cambridge with one over the modified Grand Junction rail bridge.

The map circulating with a report of Harris Band's talk shows the Urban Ring as a rail link between LMA and Harvard Square, indicated as the Urban Ring Phase 3--rail. The exact route is unclear; Band did not distribute copies of the map. Whether this would be an extension of an old Red Line tunnel and connect Harvard's Cambridge and Allston campuses; whether it would connect to commuter rail; how, if it were to be some incarnation of the Urban Ring, it might connect to the north and east beyond Harvard Square, are unknown.

The Harvard Allston website continues to show very schematic maps with spare commentary. The Harvard-funded Executive Office of Transportation study by HNTB consultants, originally due at the end of February, will probably be more detailed and much clearer. It is however still forthcoming.

Finally, I note that using the Grand Junction rail bridge for the Urban Ring would gravely and adversely affect freight traffic in the entire metropolitan region and, I believe, compromise the international competitiveness of the Port of Boston--as well as put more trucks on our roads. But these may be minor considerations compared to the presumed benefits of providing the Urban Ring Harvard wants for its Allston Initiative.

Marilyn Wellons
May 11-20, 2006