Time for state to walk the walk on bus rapid transit

Everett is the perfect laboratory for center-running lanes

THE OPENING OF THE ENCORE BOSTON HARBOR casino gave Everett and the lower Broadway corridor a big boost, but the municipality was already growing quickly. Everett’s population grew from less than 42,000 residents to nearly 47,000 residents from 2010 to 2018, a growth rate of more than 12 percent in eight years, according to Census data. At the same time, the city became significantly more diverse, as the city’s non-Hispanic white population fell from 64 percent to 46 percent, while Asian, Hispanic, and African-American shares increased significantly.

Given this rapid growth among a transit-dependent population, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation must view high quality Everett transit as a top priority. But current conditions are poor – the city has no key bus routes or rapid transit, requiring slow rides at low frequencies to either Wellington or Sullivan station on the Orange Line. Luckily, there are several in-progress projects and opportunities that, with better coordination and a shift in focus, could quickly deliver a significantly improved public transportation system.

In a report issued last year, the Lower Mystic Working Group called for an expansion of Silver Line 3 service in the Broadway corridor, running to Kendall and North Station via Sullivan. The current Silver Line 3 ends at the Market Basket supermarket in Chelsea, pointing in the direction of Everett. However, the report avoids recommending specific infrastructure for an expansion. This is a significant omission; MassDOT should commit to supporting Everett’s desire for bus rapid transit running down the center of roads with physical separation.

The Alford Street and Broadway dedicated bus lanes should be center-running. While the expansion of dedicated bus lanes in Boston, Cambridge, and Everett has delivered real benefits, existing curbside lanes are vulnerable to double parking, must frequently merge with traffic at bump-outs, and often become clogged with cars making right turns.

For a service that will become the primary transit option for a fast-growing city, partially-functioning dedicated bus lanes are not enough. Indeed, if it is not possible to implement center-running lanes, the priority should switch to building a Silver Line corridor along the commuter rail tracks behind the casino. This alternative would provide worse accessibility to the east side of Alford Street, but would achieve much higher speeds than curbside lanes or no priority at all (a totally unacceptable option that MassDOT has hinted at in the past).

The extended Silver Line route should head along the rail right of way until 2nd Street, head up Alford Street until Route 16, then turn onto Broadway and run into Sullivan. On Alford Street, the abutting properties are entirely industrial, making widening for bus rapid transit viable. Route 16 and Broadway are already multi-lane roads, so the entire route can achieve bus priority.

MassDOT and the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board continually call for municipalities to build bus infrastructure. Chairman Joseph Aiello has proposed a $50 million fund for bus infrastructure, but the focus has remained on municipally owned infrastructure. Everett, however, is already the region’s No. 1 champion of bus rapid transit. MassDOT should use current state projects to advance this transit option. Sweetser Circle, carrying Broadway over Route 16, is in the midst of $16 million of maintenance work. Rather than simply rebuilding car-centric infrastructure, MassDOT should use this opportunity to add bus priority to Broadway and the Route 16 on-and-off ramps used by the future Silver Line service.

At Rutherford Avenue, with a $150 million project currently in the final design phase, the same approach should be taken – add bus lanes for the future route. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has noted that it is unusual to add bus priority infrastructure without a current service in the corridor. While this is a wise approach in a world where new service takes many years, Everett has consistently moved faster than other cities in adding non-car infrastructure, and this should be reflected in state planning.

Beyond the rapid implementation of a Silver Line extension, the MBTA should take steps to make the existing service operate better. The worst aspect of SL3 service is the movable Chelsea Street bridge, which when raised to allow passage of vessels can delay the service for over 30 minutes. When SL3 service extends to Sullivan or Kendall, the problem will become even worse, and maintaining frequency will effectively require turning buses around at Eastern Avenue and sending them back to Sullivan to avoid huge service gaps.

The T has several options to solve this problem. The first, which should be immediately pursued, is decreasing the duration of the delays. Current policy is to open the bridge to its maximum height no matter the ship. This can add as much as 15 minutes per opening, and has no clear rationale.

But decreasing the duration of delays would not fully resolve the problem. The new bridge is significantly slower than the older lift bridge it replaced. MassDOT should study the possibility of increasing the power of the lift machinery to increase the bridge’s speed at accommodating ship traffic. While the cost may appear prohibitive, it’s worth noting Chelsea and Everett combined have a higher population than Somerville, lower mean incomes, and a much faster growth rate. The Silver Line 3 was the most cost effective MBTA project in the last several decades, with a capital cost of less than $9,000 per rider (for comparison, the Green Line extension is more than $44,000). Therefore, further capital investments are justified both on ridership and equity grounds.

Meet the Author

Ted Pyne

Leader of outreach and recruitment efforts to college students, TransitMatters
With the recent release of MassDOT’s report on the regional traffic congestion crisis, which details the hundreds of hours lost by riders on the 111 bus alone, providing better access to the communities north of Boston ought to be an urgent priority. Everett has already taken steps toward faster, more reliable bus service; now is the time for MassDOT to walk the walk on its support of bus priority and redesign ongoing projects to achieve the goal of true bus rapid transit in the corridor. At the same time, it should work to alleviate the issues plaguing the new Silver Line 3 service.

When the Urban Ring was canceled, the state noted that it grouped together projects with widely varying cost-effectiveness. But the value in splitting the ring is to actually do the effective projects. Silver Line 3 to Chelsea was a good first step. An extension to Sullivan would be even better. To achieve this, MassDOT should work with Everett to add bus priority to current projects in the corridor, and advance design funding for the remaining segments.

Ted Pyne is a member of the TransitMatters Board.