E-Tolling Paves Way for I-90 Realignment in Allston

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation switched to all-electronic tolling on the Mass. Turnpike last week, paving the way for the realignment of the I-90 interchange in Allston and opening up land for potential Harvard development.

At a press conference late last month, Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said drivers will no longer need to slow down for toll booths and will instead drive under gantries that charge tolls via electronic “EZ-Pass” transponders mounted on windshields.

“By the end of 2017… it will be as though we never had tolls on the Massachusetts Turnpike,” she said. “You will be able to go at highway speeds from one end to another.”

The all-electronic system was launched on Oct. 28. Pollack added that traffic congestion will be “particularly intense” for roughly the first month while construction crews dismantle old toll booths.

The demolition of toll booths on the I-90 Interchange in Allston allows MassDOT to move forward with the $270 million plan to replace the aging Allston viaduct and realign that portion of the Turnpike. It will take place on 91 acres of former rail property that Harvard bought in 2003.

The realignment project will be accompanied by the erection of a new commuter rail station set to open in 2020. The process of realignment, meanwhile, is subject to state and federal regulation and likely will not begin until 2018 or 2019, according to Harvard’s Associate Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications Kevin Casey.

Allston resident Galen Mook, a member of a community task force advising MassDOT on the project, said that the realignment would improve safety and allow for faster traffic, a common concern among residents.

“The design of the Turnpike as it is now to 1960 standards is actually incredibly dangerous as a roadway,” Mook said. “It’s got a pretty steep reverse curve.”

The switch to electronic tolling would also increase safety and fuel efficiency on the Turnpike, according to Pollack.

“We are confident that we are going to see a safer pike, a more convenient pike, a pike with fewer fender benders, a pike where people are burning less gas, and emitting less pollution and greenhouse gases,” Pollack said.

Boston’s urban planning agency and MassDOT have hosted community meetings on the project. Harvard plans to develop the former railyards following the highway realignment but has no specific plans at the moment for what this development would entail, Casey said. Harvard’s current developments in Allston lie along Western Avenue, north of the Turnpike project.

A 2014 letter of intent between Harvard, MassDOT, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority outlined the eventual trade of land rights for the construction of the realigned Turnpike on Harvard-owned land, Casey said.

This land is currently under environmental remediation by CSX Transportation, the railway company that maintained easement rights to the land until relocating its operations to Westborough and Worcester. The transition of the land from CSX to Harvard is expected to be completed by the end of November, Casey said, completing a process of transferring rights that began in 2007.

Allston resident Harry Mattison, also a task force member, expressed interest in seeing new development on the land following realignment.

“There’s a lot of excitement about turning what has been this huge abandoned industrial area owned by Harvard into a place that’s going to create new jobs, housing, and vibrancy,” Mattison said. “Hopefully what gets built is very different and it shows how thinking and priorities have evolved over the last 50 or 60 years.”

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