#FreeTheRamp all day long

Rush hour is good, all the time is better

OF MAJOR AIRPORTS in the United States, Boston’s is closer to the downtown than most. Yet despite the short distance, getting to Logan at rush hour can be challenging. Pick your poison: a taxicab or ride-hail in traffic? A similarly-congested ride on the Silver Line bus? A traffic-avoiding multi-seat ride on the Blue Line? A water shuttle, which avoids traffic but drops off far from the terminals? The fastest choice might be a triathlon: riding a Blue Bike, diving in the harbor, and jogging to the gate, but that’s infeasible for most airport travelers and employees. Traffic is getting worse, and traveling the three miles between Logan and downtown Boston can take the better part of an hour at busy times of day. You can’t sustain a modern economy without easier access to key destinations, and the international airport ranks high on that list.

After years of prodding, pushback from the State Police, and more false starts than a poorly-coached offense facing the Patriots, MassDOT finally tested the implementation of the use of a mostly-unused ramp adjacent to the State Police barracks in South Boston. The results of the week of testing were presented at a recent meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control board. They are, in short, more impressive than expected, and the FMCB has voted to make the change permanent.

Over the three-day period during which the buses used the ramp, the average travel time during the period of highest congestion dropped from 9:12 to 1:30, saving nearly 8 minutes. The maximum time it took during the control period was 17 minutes, meaning that a passenger could have gotten off a Silver Line bus at Silver Line Way, walked down the ramp and, while it wouldn’t have been particularly safe, gotten on to the bus ahead of the bus they were originally on.

This shows up in the current schedule data. During most of the day, the Silver Line is scheduled to make the trip from South Station to Terminal A in 17 minutes, with buses leaving every 8 minutes. But during the evening rush hour, the scheduled travel time increases from 17 to 21 minutes, and the frequency of the buses drops to every 12 minutes. The lower frequency isn’t because there are fewer buses on the route, but because the buses are caught in traffic.

Use of the Silver Line ramp doesn’t solve the many issues that render the Silver Line 1 and 3 services substandard.  Notably it does not solve the traffic issue in the tunnel, especially the inbound tunnel (although designating one of the lanes on the roadway from the airport into the eastbound tunnel as a bus lane would help), but it eliminates one of the biggest bottlenecks on the route. The use of the ramp should allow the T to run more frequent service on the SL1 and SL3 routes at rush hour, benefiting not only passengers going to and from the airport, but commuters in the Seaport, who often encounter overcrowded buses to South Station.

The ramp was tested only when speeds were expected to be below 30 mph on the highway (because there is a specious claim that higher-speed merges would be dangerous, despite such merges taking place every day elsewhere in the region). The test found that the roadway was never above that speed during the evening peak travel time, and that the times should be extended: the data show that the T encounters longer scheduled travel times starting at 2 p.m.

We’d go one step further: the ramp should be used at all times. As currently proposed, the ramp will only be used when traffic in the tunnel is below the 30 mph threshold. While using this threshold will speed up some of the longest trips, there is no good reason that buses shouldn’t use this shortcut at all times of day. The presentation to the control board claimed that the “emergency Access Ramp is not safe for use under some conditions,” but these conditions seem completely solvable and, to their credit, highway officials propose sensible solutions. Those solutions, and perhaps others, ought to be tried and tested. The task at hand is to transform a substandard bus system linking our international airport with the city’s biggest job growth district and a major intercity rail station into one that provides reliable, safe, and attractive sustainable mobility. We cannot return to a time when bus transit takes second or third place to congestion-inducing auto mobility.

This is a win for everyone, except, perhaps, the State Police troopers who for many years have driven their vehicles on the ramp in the wrong direction simply to access the barracks. In addition to the benefit for the traveling public, the report found that most bus drivers found the route via the ramp was safer and more comfortable.

Meet the Author

Ari Ofsevit

Boston program senior manager/Board member, ITDP/TransitMatters
Meet the Author

We commend MassDOT and the MBTA for finally testing the Silver Line ramp and for presenting the results. We call on them to consider and implement effective ways to mitigate the aforementioned safety issues, and we propose this as step one: order State Police to immediately cease using the ramp in the wrong direction unless there is a bona fide emergency, and open the ramp to buses at all times of day. It won’t magically solve the issues accessing one of the country’s fastest-growing airports. But it’s a start.

Ari Ofsevit is a member of the TransitMatters board. TransitMatters board member and former state transportation secretary James Aloisi contributed to this article.