Harvard Promises Funding For Boston Transport Study

‘Father’ of Big Dig says analysis will include input from local agencies

The University pledged to fund a million-dollar study of the region’s transportation systems during negotiations with local officials this spring over Harvard’s controversial purchase of 91 acres of undeveloped Boston land, according to Harvard’s recently-hired transportation consultant Frederick P. Salvucci.

State Secretary of Transportation Dan Grabauskas will lead the study, which will likely take input from a bevy of city and state agencies, according to Salvucci—a former Massachusetts transportation secretary best known as the father of the “Big Dig” and recently hired to advise the University on the transportation that will connect its burgeoning land holdings.

Salvucci said that solving urgent transportation problems in and around the Boston area could help both the city and the University.

Harvard, which is slated to announce plans for its campus in Boston in the coming months, has been working hard to find common ground with Boston’s leaders, who became irate this spring at Harvard’s purchase of a 91-acre plot which includes part of the turnpike as well as the area’s major rail yard.

Alan J. Stone, Harvard’s vice president of government, community and public affairs, underscored Harvard’s desire to help solve Boston’s transportation problems as the University expands.

“Harvard’s interest is to insure that its planning will be carried out and exercised well,” said Stone. “It will be a useful study for the state, city and the University.”

Harvard’s purchase agreement on the plot includes guarantees that the turnpike and the railroad can stay in place for perpetuity. Despite these protections, at the time of the sale several top state and city officials said they feared Harvard would stymie the development of the turnpike or use its $17 billion endowment to induce the railroad to relocate, causing unknown damage to the area’s transportation network and economy.

This week, Salvucci and Harvard officials emphasized the common interests of the University and the city.

“There are a lot of transportation issues that are important in and of themselves and its reasonably important that any of Harvard’s planning respects that,” Salvucci said. “If the [transportation] game plan works better, its better for Harvard’s position.”

Politicians began publicly expressing concerns about Harvard’s potential impact on area transportation early this spring, when the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority approved Harvard’s $75 million bid to purchase the parcel.

Criticism came from leaders like Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Secretary Grabauskas, who said that Harvard’s eventual development of the land would force out the area’s rail yard, an essential contributor to the local economy.

Officials from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) also threatened to take the land from Harvard by eminent domain if the yard—long eyed as a site for commuter-rail storage—was not given adequate protections by the University.

According to the final sale agreement, Harvard is prohibited from using land currently occupied by freight company CSX, the turnpike, or by the MBTA’s service tracks without prior agreement from those parties. And if the University ever decides to build on former rail land, it must first seek the approval of the state transportation secretary.

Harvard’s promise to provide future rail space to the MBTA—a concession Salvucci suggested during negotiations—is crucial in helping the mass transit system cut costs and improve service.

If CSX ever moves off the land or cedes some of its rails, Harvard could help create a layover facility for the MBTA’s commuter rail trains, Salvucci said.

“A future layover facility would pose some inconvenience to Harvard but would be important to the T,” Salvucci observed. “The commuter rail has become increasingly popular, and they’re under real pressure to improve that service.”

Another issue that will likely be addressed by the transportation study is the poorly-organized turnpike interchange in Allston, where a congested off-ramp system and a curve in the turnpike itself have created an aggravating and potentially dangerous area for motorists.

“If you can redesign the interchange in another configuration you can also improve the ability to build over it,” said Salvucci, noting the added benefit to the University.

“It’s important to find out what’s good for the transportation system because that will be good for us too,” he added. “Harvard’s approaching this in a real responsible way, not taking an adversarial position that some [developers] might take.”

Even though Salvucci has a long history in state and local government and transportation planning, he mostly shrugged off suggestions that his role at Harvard is political. But he said that his policy experience could be very helpful to a University planning the largest expansion of its life.

“I can tell Harvard how someone working for the mayor is likely to see these issues,” he said. “I think I can see this from a variety of perspectives. But I don’t have a plan.”

While Salvucci is officially scheduled to be advising Harvard only through August, his role will be crucial in shaping Harvard’s contributions to the transportation study, which could start before the end of the year.

“Fred’s a very valuable asset, and extremely knowledgeable in transportation issues,” Alan Stone said. “So far he’s been very helpful.”

—Staff writer Alex L. Pasternack can be reached at apastern@fas.harvard.edu.