MassDOT’s ramp proposal is a poor excuse for a plan

If state officials have concerns, go ride the 111 bus from Chelsea

EVERY MORNING, at 4:57, the first 111 bus leaves Chelsea and makes its way up the ramp from Everett Avenue to the upper deck of the Tobin Bridge, before merging left and joining the bridge traffic for the trip to Haymarket. Seven minutes later, the next bus follows. By the last trip at 12:48 the next morning, the route has safely merged onto the Tobin Bridge 189 times. That’s 189 times every weekday, 152 times on Saturdays, 125 on Sundays. It’s day in and day out – more than 60,000 merges every year.

What does this have to do with the Silver Line, as it travels from South Boston to I-90 on its way to Logan Airport? The merge that MassDOT insists is too dangerous for buses to make using the ramp adjacent to the State Police barracks is longer than the merge the 111 bus safely makes on to the Tobin Bridge nearly 200 times every day. (Until last year, the 111 bus entered the Tobin via the 5th Street on-ramp, an even shorter merge than what the route uses today.)

This diagram was created by sketching over aerial photos. MassDOT has not presented any actual data or evidence that this ramp is too dangerous.

 

After years of a Twitter campaign and advocacy from TransitMatters, MassDOT has finally presented a plan to #FreeTheRamp in a February 11, 2019, report from the state’s highway administrator (although it has not yet been discussed at a public meeting and was taken down from the state’s website). The plan is underwhelming, and that’s putting it charitably.

MassDOT insists that this ramp is far too unsafe for a bus driver to manage without major modifications. Yet if anyone from MassDOT rode the 111 bus, they would see that this sort of merge is routine for buses. Instead, they’ve found several solutions looking for problems and created a behemoth of a plan which will require time and money to put in to place, if it works at all.

What’s the plan? MassDOT proposes to have Silver Line buses descend the ramp and then stop at a stoplight (!) at the bottom. From there, they’ll wait for a gap in traffic and continue in to the tunnel. The ramp will only be used if the highway is moving at less than 30 mph. As deeply flawed as the plan is, MassDOT admits that it would benefit riders, saving passengers an aggregate of 67 hours per day.

It’s hard to know where to begin dissecting this. As any Massachusetts driver can tell you, one of the most dangerous traffic maneuvers you can make is coming to a stop while merging onto one of the region’s many highways with substandard merge distances, yet the MassDOT plan would codify this unsafe behavior for buses.

The 30 mph limit is only necessary because MassDOT is adding a stop sign: allow the buses to merge like the 111 bus merges on to the Tobin and it becomes a non-issue. The grade of the ramp—6.5 percent—is raised as an issue, although T buses routinely descend steeper hills across the region. If snow or ice is a concern, buses can detour until MassDOT crews are able to plow and treat the ramp, just as dozens of other MBTA snow routes do in inclement weather.

There’s also a signal at the top of the ramp. Why? Because MassDOT has finally admitted to something they insisted didn’t happen – that State Police use the ramp as a private exit ramp to reach their barracks, driving the wrong way up the ramp to access the barracks from the Turnpike. If we want to talk about safety issues, let’s start with State Police driving the wrong way up a highway ramp! MassDOT claims that having buses use the ramp is a safety issue, and that first responders may have to use the ramp going the wrong direction to remove vehicles from a crash in the tunnel, or take those injured from a crash to the hospital.

Let’s get real: if there’s a crash bad enough that they’re towing a wrecked car backwards out of the Ted Williams Tunnel (or that an ambulance is driving against traffic to exit), the Silver Line is the least of our concerns. There will be plenty of State Police troopers on the scene to send someone up to the top of the ramp and direct the bus to wait for a moment while they tow the car through the tunnel and up the ramp the wrong way. Also, to facilitate such a procedure, the rest of the highway would have to be be shut down, so high-speed merges won’t be a problem.

That kind of emergency event may occur once a year, and, if it does, the Silver Line buses can use their current route and sit in the ensuing traffic jam with everyone else.  We shouldn’t hobble transit service because of a hypothetical—and solvable—situation. In the normal course of events, when a maintenance vehicle or State Trooper in a non-emergency situation needs to make the trip, they can follow the same safe route other drivers would: either get off at Exit 25 and take surface streets through the Seaport, or cross through the Tunnel and loop back to access South Boston.

The Silver Line began service in 2004. In the past 15 years, MassDOT and related agencies have done nothing to improve the line by installing signal priority at D Street, where buses often wait for several minutes so a few cars can pass unobstructed, or by allowing them to use a more reasonable route to the airport. This new plan is a grudging attempt to respond to advocates for the T’s Better Bus Project and community leaders. It is also needlessly (or deliberately) complex, convoluted, expensive, and designed to disappoint or, more likely, to fail. It is, in short, what you propose if you do not actually want to do something.

We’ve seen where that takes us: to the top of the list in traffic congestion, to explosive use of ride-hailing apps to access or leave Logan Airport, and to unmanageable traffic entering the Sumner Tunnel, in large part because we aren’t providing people with viable transit alternatives. Despite this, MassDOT demonstrates no foresight in how to respond to these realities. This poor excuse for a “plan” for the Silver Line is a beautiful illustration of how the agency will spend its time and money offering up half-baked solutions that tackle the right problems in the wrong ways.

Meet the Author

Ari Ofsevit

Transportation and urban planning student/Member, MIT/TransitMatters

About Ari Ofsevit

Ari Ofsevit is a transportation planner with the Charles River TMA in Cambridge, which runs the EZRide Shuttle. He has won hackathons examining data from Hubway, late night MBTA service, and MassDOT real time highway traffic.

About Ari Ofsevit

Ari Ofsevit is a transportation planner with the Charles River TMA in Cambridge, which runs the EZRide Shuttle. He has won hackathons examining data from Hubway, late night MBTA service, and MassDOT real time highway traffic.

There’s an easy solution: stop finding reasons to say “no” and instead get to “yes.” Open the ramp to buses. Since it seems like the merge distance is a sticking point, MassDOT officials who need to be convinced that a professional operator of an MBTA transit bus can safely merge into traffic on this type of ramp have 189 opportunities to observe it first-hand every day. The first 111 bus leaves Chelsea at 4:57 tomorrow morning.

Ari Ofsevit is a member of the TransitMatters board of directors.