PERHAPS THIS WINTER’S SECOND 100-year flood will pour cold stormwater on the latest idea for fixing transportation in the Seaport District: running a gondola down Summer Street. Hopefully this idea will go in the dustbin alongside other schemes like running commuter rail along the defunct Track 61, or worse, through the existing Silver Line tunnel.
There are easier and smarter ways to improve getting to and around the Seaport, and to solve other problems with the core of the subway system. Instead of running cables over Summer Street, we should be running buses on it, in their own lane. Running the Silver Line underground and bus rapid transit above would essentially double the number of transit seats serving the Seaport at a time when traffic is threatening to choke the neighborhood before it gets off the ground.
Strategic fixes to bus operations would make big gains for small amounts of money. If we’re willing to make a bigger investment, we should convert the existing underground Silver Line into an extension of the Green Line, by extending the Green Line from a point near Boylston Station to South Station. The tunnel would be new, but it would be connecting existing portals that have been underground for decades.
Turning the Silver Line Green would deliver a needed boost to Seaport transit. The Silver Line tunnel was built so that it could be converted to a rail line, and given the capacity issues it faces every weekday, it’s past time that it is. A single bus in the Silver Line can carry only about 100 people, and is limited to 15 miles per hour in the narrow tunnel. A light rail train, on the other hand, can carry several hundred passengers, and speed along at 35 mph (or more, given new track and signals). With enough trains, a Green Line into the Seaport could carry as many or more riders as the existing buses and the proposed gondola, combined.
Bringing the Green Line into the Seaport would also create a one-seat ride between the Hynes Convention Center (and the huge concentration of hotel rooms in the Back Bay) and the Boston Convention and Exposition Center, making Boston an even more attractive destination for mega events. Running the trolley up onto the street and down to the Black Falcon terminal would mean cruise ship tourists could tour Fenway Park or shop Newbury Street 15 minutes after disembarking.
Tourists and conventioneers aren’t the only ones that would win. Regular commuters would see real benefits from improved operations throughout the downtown subway system. What is currently a three-seat ride into the Seaport—Green to Red to Silver—becomes a one-seat ride at best, or an easy transfer to a Seaport-bound trolley: no more pushing off the Green Line down crowded stairs to the Red Line at Park Street. If the new tunnel includes a station at Chinatown, Orange Line riders – including those coming from commuter rail at North Station – would be able to access the Seaport with one transfer instead of two, bypassing narrow corridors at Downtown Crossing. South side commuter rail riders benefit as well: riders on the Old Colony and Fairmount Lines, which do not stop at the Back Bay station, would have an easy connection there from South Station.
These moves would take pressure off Park and Downtown Crossing, two of the most congested stations in the system. Shifting one of the Green Line routes into the new tunnel would also relieve congestion on the main branch and create much-needed redundancy in the event of breakdowns. Much like the just-as-important Red-Blue connector proposal, this short stretch of tunnel would have dramatic system-wide impacts.
To do this, we will need to dig a new tunnel from South Station to the Theater District. Fortunately, building tunnels, as Elon Musk is finding out, is relatively easy and inexpensive with new technology. Getting people in and out of tunnels—building portals, stations, access, and egress—is a good deal more complex. Thankfully, the gap between the Green Line near Boylston Station and South Station is short, and it already has a tunnel on either end.
When you ride the Green Line east from Arlington, the tracks split under Boylston Street by the Public Garden. Until 1941, an incline rose to the street before the E Line tunnel was extended out towards Northeastern. Using this space, or separate provisions for a never-built branch to Post Office Square, would allow for a Green Line spur to split off before Boylston Station and descend under Essex Street and Dewey Square to join the existing Silver Line tunnel at South Station.
If the Green Line came into the Seaport, the existing fleet of Silver Line buses now operating in the tunnels could be moved above-ground to serve as true bus rapid transit, with comfortable, accessible stations (like Chicago’s Loop Link) starting at South Station and running down Summer Street. (The 7 bus would use the corridor, too.)
With transit signal priority, buses could zip to the convention center, pick up passengers there, and make a left down the ramp and into the Ted Williams Tunnel, providing a faster connection between South Station and Logan than exists today. Just as important, this would provide faster trips for the Chelsea Silver Line service which launches next month. And there’s no need for special buses to make a power change: regular T buses could make this trip.
Bus rapid transit on Summer is a low-cost solution, but rerouting the Green Line will cost money. So how do we pay for it? Perhaps a small fee for people who drive into the Seaport? We could charge a transit improvement fee for parking garages in the Seaport and any taxicab or Uber/Lyft trips beginning or ending there. We could get a downpayment from the $100 million the developers seem to have for a gondola, and more still by canceling the state’s Track 61 project once and for all. Maybe the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority could kick in some funds for a project linking their two signature properties. Massport could help a project which would speed buses to and from the airport, provided State Police can be convinced to let the buses finally use the onramp that was built for them.
The original environmental impact statement for what became the Silver Line understood that traffic was a threat to the long-term viability of development in the Seaport, and that transit was the only real solution. To date we’ve had much of the development but only some of the transit. The Seaport is choking on congested streets and an overburdened Silver Line. Instead of outsourcing the solution to private developers with questionable ideas, we need to be willing to think big and make strategic investments. Some of those, like bus rapid transit, involve less money but the political will to take space from cars. Others, like turning the Silver Line Green, are expensive, but would deliver tremendous benefits to the entire transit system. Either one is better than stringing up cable cars that won’t survive the next Nor’easter.
Ari Ofsevit, an MIT graduate student, and Eitan Kensky, the director of collections initiatives at the Yiddish Book Center, are both from Cambridge and members of TransitMatters.