Silver Line service needs to expand

Dedicated bus lanes should be created

The Silver Line has become one of the most important elements of the MBTA’s service platform, meeting the needs of a highly diverse population and providing an alternative mass transit connection to the airport. This service, which was originally intended to replace the old Washington Street Orange Line elevated transit system, connects some of the city’s poorest and most affluent neighborhoods and offers important transit mobility from Dudley Station and the South End to four critical destinations: Downtown Crossing, South Station, the South Boston Waterfront and Innovation District, and Logan Airport. Following an initiative begun in 2009, the Silver Line will extend into Chelsea, establishing the first leg of the long-awaited Urban Ring.

As Logan Airport’s close proximity to Boston’s downtown is a significant asset to the city and the state, reliable transit access to and from the airport through both the Blue and Silver Lines is essential to our economic future. Anyone who has recently used the Silver Line service to the airport will know that it is reaching capacity. The narrow tunnel system connecting South Station to the waterfront district is a strictly single-lane affair, with no possibility of expansion. Moreover, the South Boston Seaport and Innovation District has become a highly desirable and important destination. Additional capacity is needed to meet demand, and there is an easy, affordable and strategic way to accomplish this.

“Doing more with less” can often be a trite bit of jargon, but there are those occasions when public officials can actually accomplish that objective in a satisfactory way. When I introduced the Silver Line 4 service from Dudley to South Station in 2009, it proved an immediate success. There was clearly a lot of pent-up demand for this service, and today SL4 busses carry thousands of people daily to and from the South Station/Atlantic Avenue stop. I was under a good deal of pressure at that time from a number of civic interests not to introduce this service, but to push instead for a tunnel under Essex Street. Had I done so, there would be no SL4 service today, and no tunnel – at $2.1 billion, the prospect of constructing the Silver Line “Phase 3” tunnel was simply not a realistic option. Instead, using about $1.3 million in federal stimulus funds, we introduced a service that was not as optimal as a tunnel, but that nevertheless works well and gets people to where they want to go. Thanks to then Mayor Thomas Menino, I was able to get an entire lane of parking removed from Essex Street so that we could establish a true “rapid transit” lane for the SL4 bus – a modest effort, but a breakthrough in establishing the potential for bus rapid transit in Boston.

Following the SL4 example of doing more with less, I now propose adding additional buses to the SL4 line that would continue past South Station toward three distinct destinations. First destination: the Convention Center and Convention Center hotel. The bus would then proceed directly onto the underutilized ramp currently dedicated to State Police vehicles and enter the Ted Williams Tunnel. Second destination: each of the Logan Airport terminals, as an addition to the current Silver Line-to-Logan service. Finally, the third destination would be the Logan Airport Blue Line station. This third destination would link the Blue and Red Lines – not optimally, but a decided improvement over the current service paradigm. The total additional cost for this additional service – call it the SL6 – will be the cost of additional buses, bus drivers, and signage – in other words, a highly cost-effective expenditure.

The issue of using the State Police ramp at the South Boston entrance of the Ted Williams Tunnel for bus service has been a nagging irritant for many years. The State Police in the past have argued that they should have exclusive use of the ramp for public safety purposes. The reality is that having one dedicated bus line use the ramp won’t interfere in any material way with public safety. A simple communications system can easily be established to ensure that these vehicles share the ramp safely. This ramp is a public asset built and maintained with taxpayer dollars, and it needs to be put into use to improve mobility for all.

A word about the Silver Line service generally. Bus service needn’t be viewed as a second- or third-class form of mass transit. When it was first introduced as a way to replace the old Orange Line elevated service, the Silver Line was promoted as bus rapid transit (BRT). Major cities (and some not so major) across the globe have introduced true bus rapid transit systems that are designed and function as well as the best light rail systems – at a fraction of the cost. True BRT in Boston can mimic the appearance and performance of the Green Line service through Newton and Brookline. Implemented correctly, it can enhance the streetscape, improve public safety, and expand mobility.

The Silver Line bus service along Washington Street isn’t really bus rapid transit, because there is no fully dedicated bus lane. The SL5 and SL4 buses compete with local traffic and have to navigate around double- and sometimes triple-parked cars. For the Silver Line to operate as true BRT, the state and city would need to do something bold: take out a complete lane of parking along Washington Street, and dedicate two lanes from Massachusetts Avenue to Herald Street to bus service. Once you cross Herald Street, you would need to revert to the current street plan – again, not optimal, but the best that can be done with the infrastructure we have.

Some have called for fewer stops along Washington Street. While I understand that fewer stops means (in theory) somewhat faster service, I think that the value of the SL service would be significantly diminished by reducing stops. The system can be significantly improved with the same number of stops by dedicating lanes and by introducing automatic traffic signalization along the route. Smart traffic signals ought to be among the innovations piloted by the new administration of Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and the Washington Street corridor is a great place to do it. The idea is simple: Make each traffic signal along the route turn green when sensors detect an approaching bus or emergency vehicle. These smart signals (also known as signal prioritization) could be the beginning of Boston introducing smart intersections designed to improve both public safety and transit flow. The technology exists, it works, and it’s not expensive.

Smart signalization can also be introduced at the intersection on D Street where the current Silver Line buses emerge from the tunnel onto local streets. The proper solution to the current problem of traffic light-induced delays would be to construct a tunnel under D Street, but while that is the best solution, it is also the costliest. A smart traffic signal that automatically turns green with the approach of the Silver Line bus would provide transit users with a faster ride to the airport.

Meet the Author

The Silver Line is serving the needs of thousands of riders every day. It links communities to destinations that are critical for Boston’s growth and vitality. By adopting these fairly straightforward and inexpensive approaches to expanding and improving the service – approaches that require cooperation among state and city agencies – we can continue to prove the efficacy of “doing more with less.”

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation.