What Boston can learn from Houston

The other day I covered a meeting on the I-90 Allston Interchange, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation project to rebuild a crumbling viaduct and realign the Massachusetts Turnpike in Allston, removing a spaghetti junction interchange. In addition to repairing the infrastructure, the project would open up around 40 acres of land for development and allow for all-electronic tolling on that part of the Pike.

In order to connect the highway to the existing street network, especially the wide and dangerous Cambridge Street, MassDoT has put in some surface roads that are even wider than Cambridge Street. The roads have been continually criticized by members of the task force MassDoT convened to help develop the alternative and members of the general public. Beginning with the very first person to speak, the connecting roads were criticized as “Houston-style” and spawned an “#AllstonNotHouston” hashtag on Twitter.

MassDoT claims that the size of the roads is neccesarry for the future traffic on the Turnpike, but their projections have rung hollow — the data they presented to the task force which their consultants claimed showed an increase in Turnpike traffic over the past several years only showed it because the last data point was higher than the first and that data point was in the winter of 2014-15 when more people were driving because the MBTA and commuter rail broke down. Otherwise, the line was quite flat.

Moreover, according to former state transportation secretary Fred Salvucci, the traffic models don’t account for any increases in transportation service that aren’t in the five-year capital plan, so with West Station and all service there still unfunded or unplanned, the engineers aren’t even thinking about it.

But if Houston’s roads and lack of transit don’t fit Boston, Boston can still learn from Houston’s willingness to build.

While it’s not true that Houston has no land use regulations, it is true that it lacks many of those common to other major cities, such as zoning and its development review is considerably streamlined into a 15 day process. Houston does, alas, have minimum lot sizes and parking minimums. It’s fair to say that on balance Houston is much less restrictive when it comes to development than Boston.

This stance has allowed Houston to build more housing and at a greater variety of type and price point than any other major city, keeping prices and rents low. Houston also has a light tax burden, which could contribute to neighborhood stability because the construction of a new luxury tower wouldn’t threaten to bankrupt neighbors with higher tax bills.

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