Boston’s MBTA opened the Silver Line bus rapid transit project in 2002 and 2004 to little acclaim. The state had paid for the corridor as an environmental remediation effort for the Big Dig highway tunneling project being built simultaneously and had promised excellent rapid transit service, but what the city’s citizens actually got was a two-part, slow bus line that didn’t attract much more ridership than the routes it replaced. Now Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick has announced that he will spend $114 million in federal stimulus money to connect the two independently operating parts of the line and extend it to Mattapan, through areas currently underserved by rapid transit.
Part of the problem with the Silver Line is that it’s not so much a “line” as a collection of corridors with the same name. The MBTA operates four routes with the denomination: a surface-level line in partially independent right-of-way along Washington Street from Downtown Crossing to Dudley Square; two routes from South Station to the waterfront, running partially underground and then along the street in newly development waterfront areas (SL2-3); and a final route from South Station, via the waterfront, to the airport (SL1). To get from the Washington Street Silver Line to the other parts of the line, one must walk or transfer to the Red Line subway. It’s not exactly intuitive.
In downtown and along Washington Street, the Silver Line doesn’t feel much like rapid transit — its stations are only slightly nicer than those of other bus lines, and it’s not particularly fast: the signal priority that was supposed to speed it up saves customers an average of 7 seconds. On the other hand, the second from South Station to the waterfront is quick, as it operates in its own right-of-way in a new tunnel, and connections to the Red Line at the train station are simple. Though buses there operate on electric current, however, the Silver Line doesn’t feel much like high-quality light rail. The ride is choppy and the buses are loud. It’s not the best, and its failings demonstrate some of the inherent disadvantages of investing in cheaper bus rapid transit: the technology’s simply not as good as light rail, and the “bus” part of the rapid transit becomes an excuse for underinvesting in the line’s infrastructure.
Mr. Patrick’s announcement will pave the way for an extension of the line along Warren Street and Blue Hill Avenue from Dudley Square to Mattapan, where the Red Line Mattapan high-speed line currently terminates. As shown in the map above, the project will serve areas of the city far from rapid transit, including areas of Dorchester and Roxbury that are some of the city’s poorest. On about two-thirds of the line, buses will get full-scale busways with median stations, while the other third will get partial busways and side stations. Because these corridors will be marked, but not physically separated from the other vehicles traveling along the roads, it’s likely that the Silver Line extension will move customers slightly more quickly than buses do now, but not much because car drivers are not going to be as friendly as perhaps they ought to be. The bus route is expected to open by 2012, but locals continue to argue that a light rail line along the corridor would be more productive for the area.
What’s perhaps most interesting about the announcement is that it sidelines the third phase of the original Silver Line project, which was supposed to involve building a new $1.5 billion bus tunnel from Downtown Crossing to South Station, allowing a direct connection between the Washington Street line and the waterfront lines. The stimulus money will provide for a surface route from the Chinatown Orange Line station along Essex Street to South Station. This part of the project will be completed this fall. Here’s the problem: at least according to the Boston Globe, “Riders who get on at Mattapan will have to get off at Dudley Square and switch buses if they want to go all the way to Downtown Crossing or South Station. They will have to switch buses again at South Station if they want to go to the airport.” That’s insane. If you build the connection, the buses should be able to operate the whole route. If the problem is the rolling stock — the waterfront sections have electric and diesel service and the other just has diesel buses — buy new buses.
So this investment will do a little to improve transit in areas that need it, but it won’t solve the inherent problems with the Silver Line, and it won’t really make the service a unified line, as it appears it will still operate as several different services-in-one. Boston’s continued reluctance to invest in full rapid transit is really too bad, especially considering that the city’s existing ridership, which demonstrates that big investments in transit there are worth it — its Green Line has the nation’s highest ridership for a light rail line, its subway lines are the fourth-most-used in the country, and its commuter system is number five.
On the other hand, you get what you pay for. If the government is only willing to pony up $114 million for a project that would have cost $1.5 billion just to put in its own right-of-way downtown, it’s not going to get the same level of service.
Image above: half-mile radii around existing MBTA stations, with route of BRT extension highlighted in yellow, from Mass Gov