Why a Red-Blue pedestrian link won’t work

Best approach is a transit tunnel between Bowdoin, Charles/MGH

THERE HAS BEEN a recent renewed advocacy push to bring attention to the Blue Line’s failure to provide the necessary connectivity any good rapid transit line must. This focus on the Blue Line – the system’s shortest rapid transit line, connecting Revere, East Boston, and Logan Airport to downtown Boston – coincides with the MBTA’s process for planning future investments in the system, called Focus 40.

The MBTA presumably agrees that this lack of connectivity is a problem, which is why the Fiscal and Management Control Board plans to discuss the issue on Monday and why the agency’s  draft Focus 40 plan has the transit agency constructing a roughly 600-foot pedestrian connection between the State Street and Downtown Crossing stations, providing a Red-Blue connector without directly connecting the lines. The attractiveness of this measure stems from its ostensibly lower cost than a transit tunnel connecting Bowdoin and Charles/MGH stations.

In the long term, the draft Focus40 plan fantasizes about extending the Blue Line to Park Street, where a new “superstation” would be created, linking all four rail rapid transit lines, and then to the Longwood Medical Area. While the search for alternative mobility solutions is commendable, the short-term pedestrian link proposal would be of little or no help to those riders who would benefit the most from a Red-Blue connector, and the long-term plan is, most likely, more complicated and more expensive than the originally proposed connection to the Charles/MGH station would be. A Bowdoin to Charles/MGH extension would be more successful on virtually all metrics, for the following reasons.

The MBTA’s old cost projections are out of step with construction costs elsewhere

The MBTA’s 2010 projected cost of $750 million for the Blue/Red connection amounts to roughly $3 billion per mile of tunneling. Not only is such an exorbitant figure out of step with international costs, it is more expensive than most comparable projects in the US. It even exceeds the cost of the initial phase of New York’s Second Avenue Subway, notorious for its cost overruns and delays.  As MIT graduate planning student Ari Ofsevit observes, this high price tag most likely results from the use of bafflingly unnecessary tunneling expenses and methods for this corridor. Despite the existence of an old tunnel whose structure could be partially utilized, the study proposed deploying a tunnel-boring machine – a technology that has overall made tunneling cheaper, but only for lengthy projects. In contrast, cut-and-cover tunneling would be more cost effective. Cut-and-cover tunneling can deliver low costs; for instance, the Canada Line subway in Vancouver carried a per-kilometer cost of $150 million.

It’s true that cut-and-cover tunneling would require disruption along Cambridge Street, but not accepting this temporary headache would hold back far greater benefits. Ofsevit also notes that the new Blue Line station could have a smaller track footprint than originally assumed, further reducing costs. This analysis makes clear that there is ample room to re-evaluate the 2010 figure. Recall that the Green Line extension’s cost projection was reduced by $1 billion. That occurred with a project much further along in development; reassessment of the Red-Blue connector would be a fresh start. There is more than enough reason to question the high 2010 cost estimate; accordingly, it should not be the final word. Until and unless the MBTA asks a consultant to take an objective look at the cost of cut-and-cover construction, current cost estimates for the Blue/Red connector will be incomplete and unconvincing.

Focus 40’s proposed pedestrian connector wouldn’t improve mobility for most

On the surface, the pedestrian connector sounds like a cheaper way to accomplish the same goals that the Bowdoin to Charles/MGH connection would. Taking a deeper look, it becomes clear that such an alternative doesn’t even come close. Unlike the Winter Street Concourse, the superficially similar connection between Park Street and Downtown Crossing, the downtown link would take longer to traverse and require going up and down several flights of stairs for all trips. This is because the connection would require travelling over steep grades, and require maneuvering under an extremely densely built environment.

Consider a passenger with mobility challenges who needs to reach MGH from Revere, or a passenger who has already made the fairly lengthy trip from North Cambridge traveling to Aquarium or State. The pedestrian transfer proposed by the Focus 40 draft would neither be fast enough nor sufficiently accessible for an efficient transfer. Passengers may well be better off continuing to transfer twice, or exiting the station at ground level and walking to another. In contrast, the Bowdoin to Charles/MGH connector would provide a fast, direct link to a major hospital and the entirety of the Red Line from East Boston and Revere.

In fact, the passengers who would benefit the most from the T’s current plan to build a downtown pedestrian connection are those bound for the State Street office tower cluster from the southern branches of the Red Line. Even for these riders, the connection would be of marginal overall benefit because they can already transfer at Downtown Crossing to Orange Line trains.  And the pedestrian connection wouldn’t help North Shore or Cambridge commuters at all. Priority needs to be given to spending tight financial resources on projects that provide the most overall improvements to the most riders, and it’s clear that the Bowdoin to Charles/MGH connection beats out the underground walkway in this regard.

Going Forward

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The prospective Blue Line connection to the Red Line at Charles/MGH is a project that stands to pay great dividends to the entire region. Its exclusion from the Focus 40 planning and visioning exercise is unacceptable. The first step towards recognizing that the Blue Line is an asset that should be used to its full potential is therefore to amend Focus40 to include this connection as an early action item. From there, the next logical step is to conduct a reassessment of the Charles/MGH connection, revisiting the assumptions made and conclusions reached by the flawed 2010 study. This reassessment, like all studies, must be conducted with full attention to international best practices which reduce costs and improve deliverables, and must include a cut-and-cover alternative. It is unfathomable that the MBTA would propose spending limited resources on a pedestrian connector that will likely degrade service at several stations and do nothing to improve access to jobs, healthcare, and Logan Airport for the many thousands of riders who would benefit from connecting the Blue and Red Lines.

In conducting visioning exercises, the MBTA faces a choice: Either the status quo can be assumed, or current and future mobility needs can be met with the sense of urgency and the cost-effective delivery they require. Put another way, the Red-Blue connector can either become Boston’s Second Avenue Subway – forever aspired to, and ultimately partially completed, with future connectivity in doubt – or it can be embarked upon with full force with as rigorous a cost-effective approach as was taken on the Green Line extension. Getting it right is essential to the long-term strength and prosperity of not just the Blue and Red Line corridors, but of the entire region.

Ethan Finlan is a freelance transportation researcher and a member of TransitMatters.