T to free the ramp, but only at certain times
Shortcut to Ted Williams Tunnel for Silver Line buses coming this summer
AFTER YEARS OF PRODDING from transit advocates, MBTA officials said on Monday they plan to start allowing Silver Line buses headed to the airport to use an emergency ramp into the Ted Williams Tunnel – but only when tunnel traffic is moving at less than 30 miles per hour.
Jeffrey Gonneville, the T’s deputy general manager, estimated the shortcut could reduce Silver Line travel times to the airport during high-congestion periods by 10 to 19 minutes. That’s a huge time savings, since he said the bus’s scheduled run time to the airport is currently 20 minutes.
T officials plan to begin testing Silver Line use of the ramp this summer, mostly in the period from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. when congestion is the greatest. Initially, ramp usage will be tested in a low-tech way, with State Police and MBTA officials deciding when traffic or emergency conditions are such that Silver Line buses can use the ramp. Signboards near the entrance would tell bus drivers when the ramp could be accessed. Eventually, T officials say, they plan to automate the whole process using sensors in the tunnel roadway to determine when traffic conditions are satisfactory for bus access.
Gonneville said he didn’t know how long the automated system would take to develop, but he said it would probably be less than a year.
The T dragged its feet initially but ultimately investigated and concluded that buses could use the access ramp but only under certain conditions. Gonneville said it’s unsafe for buses to use the ramp when traffic heading into the tunnel is traveling faster than 30 miles per hour. He said the configuration of the ramp means the slow-moving Silver Line buses would have to come to a stop at the end of the ramp, wait for an opening in traffic, and then speed up to merge. When traffic is moving faster than 30 miles per hour, he said, the buses couldn’t pick up speed fast enough to merge safely.
Jonathan Gulliver, the state’s highway administrator, called the ramp situation a “Goldilocks problem,” with state officials trying to decide the best time to both safely use the ramp and cut travel times. He said time savings would be minimal when tunnel traffic is moving faster than 30 miles per hour.
Gulliver outlined the state’s plan to open up the ramp in a document that was posted on the Transportation Department’s website in February but then quickly took it down. Ari Ofsevit, a member of the TransitMatters board who has written a number of opinion articles on the need to open up the ramp, said in an opinion piece at the time that the plan was “underwhelming, and that’s putting it charitably.”
Ofsevit said in his opinion piece that T buses pull on to the Tobin Bridge from Everett Avenue with far less merge time than what’s available with the emergency ramp into the Ted William Tunnel. “If anyone from MassDOT rode the 111 bus, they would see that this sort of merge is routine for buses,” Ofsevit said. “Instead, they’ve found several solutions looking for problems and created a behemoth of a plan which will require time and money to put in to place, if it works at all.”In an email on Monday, Ofsevit was equally dismissive. “This 30 mph thing is complete and utter horse manure,” he said. “I don’t believe a word of it and I’m sure it’s State Police getting in the way. If they can’t let a Silver Line bus down this ramp, they ought to close every other ramp in the state with less than 250 feet of merge distance.” He said there are a number of ramps across the state with less than 250 feet of merge space.
Jim Aloisi, another member of the TransitMatters board, asked why the earlier plan was pulled in February and then resurrected in almost identical form nearly four months later. “I see nothing here that is materially different from the flawed and grudging concept that was floated and quickly pulled at the February meeting,” he said in an email.