Gridlock: A Case for Alternative Transportation Improvements in the Seaport District
By Matthew M. Robare
Above: A rendering of the $900 million, 1.3-million-square-foot Echelon Seaport mixed-use development, unveiling early 2020 in the Seaport District.
Boston’s Seaport Innovation District continues to be one of the hottest, most rapidly-developing neighborhoods in Boston, a successful, multi-phased initiative that has stretched the neighborhood’s transportation infrastructure to the limit years from full completion. The many cars heading to the Seaport consistently clog the neighborhood’s roads, and traffic frequently slows buses and private shuttles.
Improving transportation in the Seaport is clearly a must for the City of Boston at large, including developers, businesses, residents and tourists. With millions of square feet of new development coming to the Seaport over the coming years, it is essential that we construct higher capacity, more frequent public transit to accommodate the influx of thousands of new residents, workers and pedestrians. Moreover, the workers of today and the near future are very interested in having public transportation options. An Urban Land Institute poll of young professionals in Boston in 2015 found that having a work place close to public transit was very important to 78 percent, and 80 percent said that living near public transit was very important.
Above: An aerial rendering of the multi-phased 7.7-million-square-foot Seaport Square development, located at the heart of the Seaport District, upon completion.
Currently, the Seaport is served by two Silver Line bus rapid transit branches: SL1, which goes to Logan Airport, and SL2, which goes to the Boston Design Center and The Innovation and Design Building, home to influential companies such as Autodesk, MassChallenge and Reebok. Bus Routes Four, Seven and 11 also serve the neighborhood; Route Four connects the Seaport to North Station, and Routes Seven and 11 connect the neighborhood to South Boston’s residential sections.
Above: A rendering of the new Reebok headquarters in the Seaport District, which will open this Fall and house 700 employees.
One idea for new high-capacity transportation infrastructure in the Seaport that recently got some press is reactivating Track 61, a former freight line that runs from Cabot Yard along the South Boston Bypass Road and MassPort Haul Road, terminating at Boston Design Center. Part of the line is being reactivated to test the new Red Line cars being built in Springfield, which has prompted speculation. A few years ago, when Deval Patrick was governor, his administration looked into using Track 61 to run diesel multiple units from Back Bay Station to the Seaport and back, but that plan never went anywhere, and the line sits dormant to this day.
Ultimately, the biggest problem with Track 61 is that it lacks a direct connection to other lines. Connecting Track 61 to South Station or the Framingham-Worcester Line, which runs parallel to the Massachusetts Turnpike and is served by Back Bay Station, would require the track to meander through busy Cabot Yard. Furthermore, Track 61 lacks a second track, making scheduling problematic. Track 61’s route takes it near to Broadway Station and the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, but doesn’t get closer to the developments on Summer Street or around District Hall than South Station is. Another issue is that Track 61 has three at-grade crossings, which could be problematic given the Seaport’s high traffic volume.
Above: A map of formerly proposed diesel multiple unit service between Back Bay Station and the Seaport via Track 61.
While Track 61 is somewhat impractical and would likely cost millions to bring to fruition, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other steps that can be taken to reduce the Seaport’s auto dependency and introduce new public transit options. As MassPort nears completion of the South Boston Waterfront Transportation Center, a new 1,550-space parking garage near the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, and the Boston Planning & Development Agency (BPDA) constructs a 550-space expansion of an existing garage at the Raymond Flynn Marine Industrial Garage, it is essential that we expand the Seaport’s public transit infrastructure to provide a space-efficient, environmentally-friendly alternative to driving. Otherwise, the extra spaces will likely just bring more people to the area by car, worsening traffic.
Above: A rendering of the upcoming South Boston Waterfront Transportation Center, a 1,550-space parking garage located next to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.
Transportation improvements in the Seaport should start with the Silver Line, which runs through a tunnel from South Station to World Trade Center then operates in mixed traffic to Logan Airport and The Innovation and Design Building. Where Silver Line Way meets D Street, emerging out of the tunnel, there is a long traffic light that results in regular delays for the Silver Line. According to Ari Ofsevit, giving the Silver Line buses signal priority at this light would allow the MBTA to add three additional round trips at rush hour without increasing costs, a major capacity improvement.
Above: Silver Line buses at Silver Line Way station in the Seaport District. (Photo courtesy Pi.1415926535/Wikipedia via Creative Commons)
Additional capacity gains would come, as former state transportation secretary Jim Aloisi has noted, from dedicated, enforced bus lanes on Northern Avenue for the SL2 and Airport Road for the SL1; both roads are sufficiently wide to support a bus lane. Similarly, Summer Street could support bus lanes and signal priority for the Four and Seven routes.
Another measure recommended by Aloisi, among others, is repairing and reopening the Northern Avenue bridge, which has been closed since December 2014, as one for pedestrians and cyclists. Adding more bicycle infrastructure to the Seaport will allow more people to bike to the area, taking additional strain off of the neighborhood’s roads and public transit. Accordingly, protected bike lanes should be added to the neighborhood’s major roads, including Summer Street, Northern Avenue, Seaport Boulevard, World Trade Center Avenue, A Street and D Street, in order to encourage biking. Currently, the City plans to add protected bike lanes in Fort Point according to the Crossroads plan, but other projects are anticipated over the next 15 years in the Go Boston 2030 plan, and will compete with the rest of the City for funding.
The Northern Avenue Bridge, now closed. (Photo courtesy Ingfbruno/Wikipedia via Creative Commons)
According to The Boston Globe, developers building in East Boston, along with some elected officials, want to see ferry service between the Seaport and East Boston, while the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority has studied service between the Seaport and Lovejoy Wharf. Wynn Boston Harbor, the casino resort being built in Everett, has also jumped on the ferry train, and intends to run service from the World Trade Center in the Seaport to their cove on the Mystic River.
The Seaport Harborwalk next to the Moakley Courthouse. (Photo courtesy NewtonCourt/Wikipedia via Creative Commons)
Expanding ferry service, however, is probably not a great option for the MBTA. Ferries combine high operating costs, low capacity and infrequency with a high ticket cost. For many years, the MBTA Advisory Board has urged that the Authority’s existing ferry operations be transferred to MassPort, citing the aforementioned cons. While buses and bikes aren’t as sexy as trains and ferries, they get the job done simply and relatively affordably, helping reduce auto dependency and improving cities’ space and energy efficiency.