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Keller @ Large: Do We Really Need This New Mass. Pike Project In Allston?

BOSTON (CBS) - Every massive highway project deserves a descriptive nickname, one that's adaptable to potential outcomes. For instance, the Big Dig quickly morphed into the Big Pig when its costs mushroomed, swallowing federal and state resources for other transportation infrastructure.

So for the state's preferred scheme for redesigning the Mass Turnpike extension where it borders the Charles River outside of the Allston tolls, I propose: the Pike Drop.

allston highway redesign
A rendering of the planned elevation of Soldiers Field Road above the Mass Pike. (Image credit: MassDOT)

For now, this pays homage to the plan to lower the Pike to ground level while raising Soldiers Field Road up onto a new viaduct. This would apparently replace one aerial blight, freeing a large swath of choice riverfront property for development into a new neighborhood featuring extensions of the BU and Harvard megaplexes, with another, presumably lesser blight.

allston mass pike
The affected portions of the Mass Pike and Soldiers Field Road. (Photo credit: MassDOT)

We're told this will free up more recreational space right along the water than the current, pitiful path, but judging from the sketches they've posted online it doesn't seem like much of an improvement. But the new neighborhood – let's call it Dropville for now – would surely add taxable property to the rolls (except for the universities' slice of the pie – they're exempt from property taxes).

I'm not an engineer and can't pass informed judgement on whether or not this is the wisest way forward. And let's note right here that Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and her MassDOT team are true pros who are running an open process that aggressively solicits public feedback, unlike the secretive Big Dig.

But I did suffer through the Big Dig, its false promises of traffic relief, its absurdly low-balled cost estimates, its destruction of the state's credibility with the feds and the siphoning of badly-needed funds for other pressing local transportation needs. And so I offer a few questions to be pressed as the saga of the Pike Drop unfolds:

Do we really even need to do this?

State officials say the current Pike viaduct is aging but not in danger of collapse. It costs $800,000 a year to maintain it, a pittance compared with the laughably-low $1.1 billion cost estimate for the Pike Drop. Yes, turning grimy rail yards into a spiffy new community would be nice, but the city is doing fine without it for now.

Speaking of new neighborhoods, have we learned anything from the Seaport?

If you build it, they will come, and when you build a traffic magnet in a cramped corner of the city, you get a situation like the horrendous gridlock of the Seaport district.

Will the universities who stand to cash in on the Pike Drop get to walk away with the profits without paying their fair share in PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) contributions?

According to the city's latest figures, BU pays 87% of what the city asks; Harvard, a pitiful 79%.

Local development gluttons get upset when you criticize mega-projects like this one - they fought back with lies and threats against Big Dig critics who were proven right at every turn.

But it's time for the skeptics to speak up, loudly, before the Pike Drop drops another costly Big Dig-style fiasco on our heads.

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