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The epic saga of Harvard’s attempt to acquire more land in Allston continues. Resisting pressure applied by local politicians, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority recently decided to go ahead with an $80 million sale of 91 acres of Allston land to the University. A CSX railyard lies on part of this property, a vital link in Boston’s freight and commuter rail transportation network. This link should not be severed, but at the same time, selling the land to Harvard will endanger the railroad.
In the latest set of twists, the Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority (MBTA) announced that it intends to seize the 47 acres on which the railyard sits through “eminent domain,” giving $33 million in compensation, rather than see the land sold to Harvard. In response, State Sen. Jarrett T. Barrios ’90-’91—who represents both Cambridge and Allston—pledged to introduce legislation preventing seizure of the land by the MBTA. He has called upon Harvard and the MBTA to work together to ensure adequate transportation planning for the future.
While this bold move by the MBTA highlights the importance of the railyard to Boston, Barrios’ approach—to cease bickering and start planning for the future of Allson—is the right one to follow.
Harvard poses no threat to the Allston railyard in the foreseeable future. Harvard has publicly pledged not to disrupt the operations of this vital piece of infrastructure, and it couldn’t, even if it wanted to. CSX, a major freight railroad company, holds permanent easements to the land, guaranteeing their right to use the railyard no matter who owns the property it sits on. And even if CSX were to sell or forfeit its easement, Harvard, by state law, could still not touch the railyard without the approval of the transportation secretary. As long as that railyard is needed, there are mechanisms guaranteeing that it will remain in place.
Consequently, the proposed move by the MBTA is illogical, even if purely for administrative reasons. The MBTA—the government agency that operates the Boston area mass transit system, including the subway, the trolleys, the buses and the commuter railroad—is a perennial money-loser. Fares are deliberately set below the break-even point in order to keep public transportation affordable for Boston’s poorest citizens; state tax revenues help keep the agency afloat. And with the state government facing a huge budget crisis, and the MBTA contemplating another fare hike, it is sheer folly to throw away $33 million to pay for land that the transportation secretary ultimately controls. Meanwhile, the MBTA is facing tougher budgets in the recession. It would be folly to simply transfer money from one poor state agency to another. The MBTA should save its cash, let the Mass Pike take Harvard’s private funds, and rely on the safeguards already in effect to keep the railyard in place—thereby preserving commuter rail lines that are dependent on its operation.
Because Barrios represents Allston and Cambridge, he has the interests of both Allston residents and Harvard in mind and is well placed to make a judgment on this land. Development across the river is vital to the future growth of the University and is currently welcomed by Allston residents who would be thrilled to see their neighborhood thrive. An unpleasant urban wasteland abuts this vital railyard, and Harvard development of the other 44 acres of this 91-acre parcel could clean up the neighborhood while preserving the railyard. Since Barrios also represents a good number of working class voters, he is aware of the hardships another MBTA fare hike would bring. And as a state senator, Barrios has a broader perspective as well. He is aware of the importance of this railyard as a transportation link for the region as a whole—as well as the vital necessity of developing the property adjacent to it. When Barrios calls for the MBTA to ease up, he’s both qualified and correct.
State agencies must use their powers of eminent domain wisely and justly. In this case, the MBTA must act with intelligence and foresight. This property should be sold to Harvard, with full guarantee that the public interests will be preserved.
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