Boston to Extend Silver Line to Mattapan and South Station

Boston Silver Line Extension MapBRT — currently operating in two sections — will be united

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

17 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • ben

    The tunnel section from South Station to the waterfront is not quick at all. The speed limits in the tunnel are excruciatingly low, especially where the tunnel curves. I recall seeing speed limit signs that say 6 or 10 mph.

  • The proposed southward extension seems to more or less parallel the Fairmount commuter line, which they’ve talked about upgrading so that it can run at subway-level headways with DMUs — whatever happened to that plan? Is it dead?

  • Kyle - Boston

    Why does the EOT and the MBTA continue to push so-called Bus Rapid Transit? It is an extremely inefficient service, which is nothing more than a glorified and overly expensive bus service. What’s even worse, the T continues to point at the success of the Silver Line, yet SL3 has been shut down, SL2 has low ridership and SL1 is only popular, because people have to get to the airport. It has to wait at red lights, has a top speed of 15mph in the tunnel, drives through airport traffic and has consistent bottlenecks. The funniest part is when the driver turns off the bus, the lights go off, he gets out and walks to the back to either start the diesel engine or switch to electric.

    This same type of inefficient, cheap and worthless bus service is now being pursued as the only option for the Urban Ring, which will be a dismal failure, unless it is an entirely underground hard rail system.

    So, with all the failures of BRT, why does the EOT and MBTA continue to push this glorified bus technology as the way forward? Now over $100 million in stimulus funding is being wasted to “improve” a bus line; great job!

    Anyone who bushes “BRT” in a city like Boston, obviously does not ride the T and has never ridden a “BRT”. Once again, incompetence reigns.

  • Charlie D.

    BRT along Bus Route 28 will without a doubt be better than the current very crowded local bus service. However, the devil is in the details, as we have all learned with the Silver Line. The more the buses can be physically separated from other traffic, the better (the center bus lanes on Blue Hill Ave should be an improvement over the curbside lanes on Washington St). Also, prepayment so that riders can board at any door is very important. When many people are boarding, and they have to all board via the front door AND pay, it really slows things down. Sure a train is better, but BRT is at least a step in the right direction that can be done relatively quickly.

  • what happened to this? any updates

  • Erik

    Local transit advocates do not call it “The Silver Lie” for nothin’!

  • Ari

    Cross-posted, with a map, at The Amateur Planner

    The Silver Line has so many problems.

    First off, there’s this bizarre notion that people from Roxbury and Mattapan need to get to the airport. All the time, forever. It’s probably not the case. I’m not one to make brash generalizations, but here’s one: the people who generally use the airport are folks from affluent and/or student-infested parts of Boston. At higher rates, anyway. It would make much more sense to take this $114m and build a spur of the blue line in to the actual airport. Build a loop to the terminals. Heck, build it in to Central Parking, where there are elevated walkways to all the terminals. Eliminate the shuttle bus (which I once tried to take before a long weekend and it was packed to the gills with college students with dozens more waiting to board).

    Second, the Silver Line from South Station to the airport is very slow. The tunnel is fast enough—the speed is slow but it’s grade separated, so it works. The problems arise once the buses reach the surface. The then cross D Street and proceed to drop the trolley poles and switch to petroleum. The route then takes a convoluted backtrack loop back towards South Station, across D Street, through several lights, before the bus can finally turn down in to the tunnel. $15b and they couldn’t build a ramp straight to the airport, which would have been rapid.

    Then, the airport. Since Boston is the furthest northeast city in the country, Logan has never developed in to a hub airport. Thus, no one has ever built one big terminal. So the airport is a hodgepodge of terminals, each with an access road which gets choked with traffic. Sure, the buses can sometimes bypass these queues, but they still have to go through the loops in to terminals A, B, C, and E (with two stops in B—Terminal D doesn’t really exist). Ten of fifteen minutes later, they loop back in to the tunnel and a mess of roads before looping back to South Station.

    I’m very glad that “Phase III” has been all but nixed by the Feds. A $1.4b tunnel would not fix the main issue that trips are scheduled to take 38 minutes to go from South Station to the airport and back. As the crow flies, this is just over a mile. A Blue Line spur to the airport, with stops at Maverick and Aquarium, would tie in to the rest of the system with trip times of maybe eight minutes, tops, with faster loading and more capacity, to boot.

    *****

    But that’s really actually not the worst part. Again, I’ll start by explaining that I am happy that the $1.4b tunnel from pretty much nowhere to pretty much nowhere with a couple sharp curves thrown in was not funded. From Boylston Station on the Green Line five blocks south is a disused tunnel for streetcars, and the plan was to basically decimate that tunnel to build it to bus loading gauge. Here’s the thing—the tunnel ties in to the Green Line—to a four track alignment to Park Street Station—and is grade separated, underground!, at the junction. Basically, if you turn back one line of the green line at Park Street, you could add in another without increasing capacity on the congested central subway.

    And this tunnel would tie in splendidly with light rail down towards Mattipan. You build a new portal at Tremont and Oak and cut diagonally across the Turnpike and NEC from Shawmut to Washington. Washington Street is wide enough for trolley cars to not interfere with parked cars by occupying the center lanes. (Washington Street once had the elevated above it.) Stations in the center of the tracks, proof of payment ticketing perhaps, and you don’t impede traffic significantly, which could pass stopped trains.

    Getting through Roxbury might be fun—but you could use the old elevated right-of-way for one or both tracks of a light rail line. Or tunnel underneath if you had the dollars. From there, Warren Street has two lanes each way plus a wide median, so congestion wouldn’t be a major issue) to Quincy Street, where you’d then have to build on a two-lanes-plus parking street to Blue Hill Avenue for less than half a mile. Cut parking to one side of the street and build wide lanes and you’d be fine.

    Then you hit Blue Hill Avenue. The Avenue is three lanes each way plus a wide median all the way down to Mattapan, where you could connect with the High Speed Line. Trolley tracks could be in a separate median (like Comm Av or Beacon Street in Brighton and Brookline). In fact, this was the case in the past.

  • Ocean Railroader

    The few things I kind of don’t understand about BRT is that if it is a type of bus that is really two regular buses linked up with a bendy thing in the middle. It would most likely be very hard to drive it though very heavy traffic in a major city so the bus drivers really do have a lot of skills to drive them with out getting into a crash. It looks like the streetcars need to reclame their old terrorty in that if you have two or three streetcars linked up the rails help control it far better.

  • Anon256

    Ocean Railroader: Articulated buses are routinely used on ordinary local bus routes in major cities (New York, Los Angeles, London, Budapest, Jerusalem, and many others). With proper driver training this works just fine and is well worth it for the increased capacity (though Boris Johnson disagrees). Of course on a “BRT” route with dedicated right-of-way length/handling is even less of an issue, and some BRT systems such as Curitiba use bi-articulated (i.e. three-segment) buses. Such a buses still have less capacity than a two-car light rail train, but have their place.

  • Ocean Railroader

    They are planning to add articulated buses to some of the major bus lines in downtown Richmond Virginia at least with the articuted buses and bio articulated buses it makes it easer for streetcar planners to look for more logical routes for streetcar lines vs going after a regular bus line with regular sized buses.

  • Woody

    Anon256 — In theory I don’t object to articulated buses. But in actual NYC practice …

    They were put on the Crosstown routes connecting the East and West sides on Manhattan. These routes are heavily used by New Yorkers, and as everyone knows, we’re always in a HURRY!

    When the new buses were put in service, each one carried as many or more passengers as two regular buses. To save money, they ran half as often. What had been a wait of, say, 4 minutes between each bus now became a scheduled 8 minute interval. But they run slower, because the crowds that accumulate at each stop enter the bus painfully slowly through the front door. Indeed, a small crowd exits through the front door as well, in part because of the distance from seats in front to the rear exit doors is so much longer. Now bunching is a regular problem. More often than not the behemoth buses come in pairs, a full one with an almost empty one right behind it.

    The MTA could have honestly said, “We can raise fares, or get higher taxes, or use double buses to cut costs, and we chose to cut costs. Sorry about the inconvenience.”

    Now in ordinary cases, I’m against the death penalty. But when the MTA instead responded to complaints of decreased service by denying there was any such thing “because capacity remained the same,” that was when I would have hauled out the guillotine.

    I hate these buses and I arrange my bus-riding life to avoid them. Note to all riders: the 96th St Crosstown buses are NOT articulated.

    Fact is, articulated buses mean degraded service, except perhaps on a full-blown BRT, but for everyone else, they are decidedly inferior. We should be honest with ourselves about that.

  • John W

    Woody: That depends on how the set-up works. On London’s bendy buses (come on, it sounds so much nicer than articulated – isn’t that a dental surgery procedure) there are 3 doors for exit and entry (though by habit, people tend not to use the front doors for exiting as you get growled at for that on ordinary buses), which does seem to make things faster than other bus types. You can’t pay cash – fares are by prepaid ticket or, in most cases, by Oyster Card (there are card readers near each set of doors). Of course, this does open things up for fare-dodging (people refer to one of my local routes as the Seventy-Free) but it does provide employment for occasional swarms of ticket inspectors. That said, we hate them anyway. Unattractive, characterless, more people stuck standing and a nightmare for cyclists – can’t wait for the new Routemasters to arrive.

    I’m surprised they haven’t considered double-deckers for NYC. Are there height restrictions? Or are they just considered old-fashioned, even though
    some of them patently are not.

    In terms of passenger flow, if I recall correctly, at least some of the double-deckers in Berlin had two staircases, so there was a continuous flow from the front of the bus to the rear exit on both levels. Very efficient.

  • Woody, the M79 artics run at 3-4-minute intervals at rush hour.

  • Ocean Railroader

    Double Decker buses would be far more fun and intersting vs the bendy buses on BRT line.

    The BRT line they are planning along Broad Street in Richmond Virginia they are planning to run bendy buses and they made a comment on their website that over 700 bus trips happen each day on Broad street. The ceterlanes on Broad street that they are going to use for it run right over a former streetcar line right down the center of Broad. But oddly the city is doing this BRT project with the idea that the streetcar line might come back one day.

  • Woody

    Ocean RR — When they claim they’ll put in Light Rail or streetcars “after” the Bus Repackaged Transit shows the need for a real system, that’s another time I’d be ready to use the guillotine. It shows real contempt for democracy when elected leaders so blatantly lie to the public.

  • I think once a bus gets to a point were you have to link two of them as one it’s time for streetcars or light rail a bus that long would be on the danger side condering other drivers act like trolls on the highway. I find this sliver line project silly in that they are going to dig tunnels build bridges and other crazy things for a simply bus route. It’s time to get light rail or a streetcar.

    At least with Richmond’s bus project they are only going to restripe the existing six lane highway to four car lanes a two bus lanes and only add brick pavers for the cross walks and some landscaping.

  • Max Wyss

    Ocean Railroader: A natural development line concerning capacity is beginning with single buses. At a certain time, you will need articulateds. The world’s leading bus manufacturers have single or articulated variants.

    The next step would be trolleybuses (which provide better accelleration, and can create higher capacities). This also means a more or less specified guideway. And if more capacity is needed, double articulated trolleybuses come into the play (as it happened in Zürich or Genève, where 25 m long trolley buses run nowadays, and there are some really tight curves in the network).

    And when the capacity of double artucilated buses is no longer sufficient, light rail would be the next step.

    It has been suggested as a big advantage of BRT using its own right of way, that it can be implemented within very short time, and it would allow to secure the right of way for light rail operation … eventually.

    So, BRT, can have its advantages, if you have a long-term plan.

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