Fixing the Logan ‘donut hole’

How to cover late night, early morning transit needs

With congestion continuing to plague East Boston and the Logan Airport roadway system, Massport has proposed changes to the fees charged for ride-hailing companies (Uber and Lyft) for pickups and dropoffs at the airport. Leveraging  these fees, Massport will beef up Logan Express coverage, adding a new route to North Station as well as additional service to other Logan Express lines which run out to suburban park-and-rides.

TransitMatters fully supports this common-sense fee structure as one way to encourage more sustainable travel, and we are pleased that Massport is putting a new emphasis on revitalizing its Logan Express service. We think that the Massport plan can and should be improved as it  still leaves a “donut hole” for people living closer to the airport: there is very minimal transit service to and from Logan between midnight at 6 a.m. Given the large number of flights that take off from Logan between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., this is a fairly significant gap that must be closed.

Here’s our idea.

A passenger or employee coming from Framingham, Braintree, or Woburn can catch an “early bird” Logan Express bus at 2:15 a.m. to get to Logan for an early flight without driving to the airport or taking a ride-hail vehicle and being subject to a fee. But if you live in Boston or Cambridge, you’re out of luck. The earliest transit can get you to the airport, with the exception of two trips from Dudley Square, is between 5:30 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., whether it’s on the early Back Bay Logan Express or the first Silver Line bus. So anyone with a flight departing before 7 a.m.—of which there are about 60 per day—has no opportunity to take transit. Since there are only a handful of red-eye flights arriving before 6, most of these cars head back to Boston empty. Yet without another transit option, early-morning passengers have no choice but to book a ride-hail car or a taxi and pay this fee or drive and pay for parking.

This is especially hard for early-morning staff headed to the airport from across the harbor, since the airport operates at full capacity at 5 a.m. and many staff arrive earlier. Their options are to take an expensive taxi or ride-hail or park in the outlying employee parking garage in Chelsea, which then entails a shuttle ride to the airport. Many of these airport jobs are low-wage, so the cost of commuting can eat up a good portion of an employee’s salary. Yet other than living in East Boston, Winthrop, or Revere, there is no way to get to the airport without a car (whether driven and parked or paid for by the ride), and living in Eastie isn’t getting any cheaper.

There is a common-sense solution to this access problem, which is to expand overnight transit service to the airport. No longer would a late-arriving plane mean a long line for a taxi or a surge fee for a $50 Uber ride to Cambridge. No longer would a 6 a.m. departure mean the choice between paying $26 per day for parking (in the economy lot) or an expensive Lyft ride to the airport. There are two ways in which Massport could provide this service:

  • Improve service on existing late-night and early-morning MBTA transit options to the airport. Right now, the MBTA 171 bus makes two early-morning trips to the airport before 5 a.m. In addition, there is a late Silver Line bus from the airport to Dudley which departs the airport at 2:30 a.m. But other than this route (and a few odd SL3 buses which serve the airport station, but not the terminals), there is no overnight transit. Expanding this late SL1-SL4 service, Massport could provide the operating funding for the T to operate the Silver Line from Dudley to Logan every 30 minutes from 1 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. This would operate on the surface downtown, which is faster overnight than using the Silver Line tunnel, and wouldn’t require that the stations stay open overnight.
  • Extend the Back Bay Logan Express bus to 24-hour service.
    Alternatively, the Back Bay Logan Express bus, which currently runs from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.—providing slightly earlier service to the airport than the Silver Line (the first Silver Line trip is scheduled to arrive at the airport at 5:57 a.m.)—could be extended. Running this bus every 30 minutes overnight, especially with an additional stop at South Station, would allow more options for passengers to get across the harbor for early or late flights. It would require a longer additional span of service, and would not provide the same jobs access that a Silver Line route would, but would simply use Massport buses on a route already in operation.

Either of these options would allow passengers wanting to take transit to save on fees for ride-hail vehicles or taxicabs, and get across the harbor where they can access more transportation options. Boston has one of the closest-to-downtown airports of any city in the country (if not the world) but between midnight and 6 a.m., without a car, it might as well be on another continent.

We suggest that Massport, which already supports the T by helping fund the free Silver Line inbound service from the terminals to South Station, build further on this relationship. The SL1-SL4 route, which already provides service with a single 2:30 a.m. trip, would provide an important link between the jobs available at the airport and communities which need better access to these jobs. The 171 would be replaced, and the early-morning pull-out SL3 trips—which currently get to the Airport T station at 4:40 a.m. but don’t serve the airport terminals, necessitating a walk or a shuttle ride—would add airport stops with only a minor addition of operating time.

Meet the Author

Ari Ofsevit

Boston program senior manager/Board member, ITDP/TransitMatters
Compared with the overall cost of these Uber/Lyft and Logan Express changes, for which the offsetting costs and revenues each spike into the tens of millions of dollars, adding a few hours of transit service each night is small, coming in around $750,000 per year for the MBTA option, and probably a similar amount for the Logan Express option. Expanding overnight service benefits both travelers and airport employees, and also enables regional access to jobs and reduces congestion in general. Including one of these options as part of the overhaul to Logan ground transportation policy should be an easy decision for Massport.

Ari Ofsevit is a TransitMatters board member.