Debunking the Track 61 plan

It is a solution in search of a problem

EFFECTIVE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION systems are those that excel at getting people to places they want to go. That may seem an obvious point but the two attributes that help make this happen – access and connectivity – are often overlooked or not fully realized. As a result, many people are regularly frustrated by a transit network that does not respond well to their mobility patterns or needs.

Access to reliable transit means access to jobs, schools, health care – to opportunity. You may assume that everyone in Greater Boston has equal and excellent access to transit, but that’s not the case. Many people live in transit deserts, or in places (like South Boston, Union Square in Somerville, or Winthrop) that rely exclusively on local buses because of transit planning decisions made many years ago. We live within the constraints and limitations of those decisions, but when we can, we find creative ways to make the most of the system we’ve inherited.

Connecting people every day from their starting point to their chosen destination may seem a straightforward objective to meet, but the realities of existing rail rights-of-way, congested roadways, and non-uniform street patterns makes this more challenging than you might think. Boston’s famous meandering streetscape, the legacy of colonial cowpaths, is not merely a metaphor for the challenge of straight-line connectivity; it is in many instances a barrier to the kind of mobility system that responds to the needs of a 21st Century city.

These issues of access and connectivity converge in many ways and many places. They are present for many people in the Mattapan/Dorchester/Roxbury corridor currently underserved by several congested bus lines and the Fairmount Line. They are also present for many people in the Seaport District who are significantly underserved by a Silver Line network that largely operates as a conventional bus system (competing for limited congested road space), and often at capacity. A news report by the Boston Globe’s Jon Chesto recently resurfaced a discussion focused on the merits of linking those southern and northern areas of the city with a rail connection between the Fairmount Line and Seaport District. This connection, using a rail spur called Track 61, would have trains run north on the Fairmount Line, as they do today, but instead of stopping at South Station, they’d bypass South Station and use the Track 61 spur to head northeast to the Seaport District. This idea is well intentioned, but it is a solution in search of a problem.

While there is certainly demand for public transit along the Fairmount Line and to the Seaport, there is no data to support high demand for travel between the Fairmount Line and the Seaport. On the contrary: a Boston Planning and Development Agency report shows that residents of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury work all over the region, but the top destinations are downtown Boston and those neighborhoods themselves; the Seaport is not one of the main destinations. Conversely, people who work in the Seaport District live all over the region, and only 4 percent live in Dorchester. The Track 61 plan, with no connection to South Station or any other subway station, has no ability to serve people who work outside the Seaport. In contrast, Fairmount Line passengers today have easy connections at South Station to Back Bay, the Seaport, Cambridge, and many other destinations.

The priority for the Fairmount Line should be frequent, reliable service at least every 15 minutes all day; otherwise it doesn’t respond to the transit inequity it was initially designed to help solve, and it is a waste of the significant investment (perhaps in excess of $100 million) the MBTA has spent on upgrades to tracks and new stations. By heading to South Station, and connecting to the rest of the subway and commuter rail network, this service provides the kind of connectivity that riders urgently need. No train should branch to Track 61: branching is useful when a central trunk branches in the suburbs or outer neighborhoods, as the Red and Green Lines do. Branching is singularly not useful, and often harmful, when an outlying line branches in the core. Such branching is especially bad when a radial line like Fairmount swerves away from the center to a secondary destination.

While we believe investment in the Fairmount Line is beneficial, it’s worth emphasizing that not every public transit solution requires rail. In an era of significant fiscal constraints, it seems to us as transit advocates that we are obliged to identify and promote achievable and functional alternatives. The Blue Hill Avenue corridor, carrying the 28 Bus (one of the MBTA’s busiest), is parallel to the Fairmount Line. The MBTA can and should deploy bus rapid transit, or BRT, on Blue Hill Avenue, creating a continuous corridor with the Silver Line on Washington Street via Dudley.

In the 1950s, the 28 streetcar on Blue Hill Avenue ran in a median, much like the Green Line’s B, C, and D Line routes do today. While the road was reconfigured to respond to a more auto-oriented era, it remains wide enough to support restored dedicated transit lanes along most of the route (only a short segment connecting to Dudley via Warren Street is challenging). The idea of bus rapid transit on this corridor was first introduced in a serious way in 2009 as the 28X bus project. That initiative would have redirected about $145 million in federal stimulus funding from highways to the design and construction of BRT from Mattapan Station to Dudley Station. It would have transformed the 28 Bus experience and revitalized the Blue Hill Avenue corridor. From Dudley, a BRT corridor along most of Washington Street would connect travelers to South Station along the current Silver Line 4 route.

Unfortunately, the Silver Line today is BRT in name only. The Washington and Essex Street bus lanes are not enforced as “bus only,” and as the corridor leaves the South End and enters downtown Boston, where traffic is the heaviest, buses have no dedicated lanes at all. The absence of traffic signal priority – and haphazard dispatching – only add to the problem. As a result, bus bunching along this line is notorious and the Silver Line 5’s average speed is only 7 mph.

BRT on Blue Hill Avenue, connecting to Dudley, would serve parts of the city that suffer from long commutes, a circumstance that contributes to a wide racial gap in commute length. The Boston Globe in 2012 singled out the 28 Bus for its low speed and poor reliability. The problems listed, “red lights and one-by-one boardings,” are precisely what BRT aims to fix: off-board fare collection and all-door boarding speed up boarding, signal priority reduces the number of red lights on the way, and dedicated lanes allow the bus to skip traffic.

A more expensive and transformative fix – but one that may pay dividends down the line – is to electrify the Fairmount Line. Electric trains have much better acceleration than diesel trains, especially on a short line with many stations like Fairmount. An electrified Fairmount Line can improve end-to-end trip time from the current 30 minutes to closer to 20 minutes. Electric trains also do not create local air pollution, a particular concern in a high-asthma area such as Dorchester. Electrification would allow faster, more reliable service on the Fairmount Line while reducing service costs (a single train can make more trips with the same crew and equipment costs). Since the track is already in place – and the northernmost two miles already have electrification – the overall cost and benefits would be far more favorable than rebuilding track and stations along Track 61.

We also agree that there should be a way to improve public transit access to the Seaport, as it is increasingly dysfunctional from a mobility perspective. As with the Fairmount Line, it is important to ensure that any improvement connects with the rest of the region’s transit network. Here, the only affordable and sensible solution is bus-based.

The Silver Line runs at or near capacity. Fortunately, Summer Street from South Station east is one of the widest major streets in the city. Right now, the 7 route runs 17 buses per hour at the peak and those buses are full, even though rush-hour average speed is only about 7 mph. At rush hour, these buses already carry as many passengers as cars do on the corridor. Summer Street ought to be a prime candidate for BRT, where modest enhancements would allow faster boarding by riders and reduce or eliminate bus wait time at red lights. A BRT corridor that connects South Station to the Convention Center and Logan Airport while also improving mobility to South Boston would be a massive improvement to Seaport District mobility. If a direct connection from Dudley to the Seaport is desired, Silver Line 4 buses to South Station could turn east on Summer Street. BRT along this short but critical corridor would also have the effect of improving the public realm, making it safer and more pleasant for pedestrians and cyclists.

In summary, we agree that both the Seaport District and the neighborhoods along the Fairmount Line deserve investment in better public transportation. But the two areas need better connections to the rest of the region’s transit network more than better connections to each other. The Track 61 idea combines these two areas in an awkward way, using a branching technique that typically fails to provide an efficient transit service in the urban core. More to the point, Track 61 is not a solution to what either area needs. In both cases, it is better to connect both to South Station, and then, if a direct connection between the two is desired, run surface Silver Line buses along Summer Street (preferably as true BRT). As we have explained, there are several ways to improve transit for the people seeking mobility to and from these city neighborhoods, each coming with different levels of investment: from installing and enforcing bus lanes, to implementing true BRT, to improving and electrifying Fairmount.

Meet the Author

Meet the Author

Alon Levy

Freelance writer, Transportation issues
Our objective is not to be dismissive of the appropriate and creative use of Track 61, which may be an important transportation link at some point in the future. It is rather to propose solutions that will work best, and that offer affordable approaches to improving transit access and connectivity in the relative short term. Our approach ensures better access and connectivity, improving transit efficiency and social equity. We hope it is considered as a thoughtful and practical approach to improving mobility in Boston.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation who serves on the board of TransitMatters. Alon Levy is a Paris-based freelance writer who blogs frequently on transportation issues at Ari Ofsevit contributed to this article.