» Opportunities for rerouting commuter rail via the Grand Junction in Cambridge are criticized by community members who fear increases in pollution. Meanwhile, the long-planned Green Line extension in Somerville is threatened by budget limitations.
Just northwest of Boston, Cambridge and Somerville are some of the nation’s exemplar cities when it comes to promoting transportation alternatives. In Somerville, 48% of the population rides transit, walks, or bikes to work; in Cambridge, 57% do. The explanation likely comes down to a strong commitment to livable streets in both cities, a large student population, high residential densities, community activism against limited-access highways, and big concentrations of jobs both in the traditional office center of Downtown Boston but also in the walkable Kendall Square-MIT and Harvard Square areas, both along the Red Line rapid transit corridor.
Yet, with the exception of the Red Line — extended north of Harvard Square in the early 1980s — reliable transit access in the two cities is limited. Buses crisscross the area, but they are stuck in traffic at all periods of the day due to the lack of reserved lanes. Commuter rail lines that extend through the area only stop once, at the Porter Square Red Line station. These limitations have strained the Red Line, which now suffers from overcrowding at peak hours, and limited the potential for growth. In addition, partially because of the penury of transit stations around which to build up, the Boston region is one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets.
For years, plans for transit access improvements, clearly merited considering the area’s demographics and potential, have been under development by the Boston-area transit agency, MBTA. A circumferential bus rapid transit line, the Urban Ring, would have allowed commuters from Cambridge and Somerville to get to Boston’s jobs-heavy Longwood Medical Area or Logan Airport without passing through congested downtown — but it was put on indefinite hold last year due to a funding shortfall. Now, an extension of the Green Line light rail line into Somerville is threatened by similar concerns. And the reactivation of the Grand Junction commuter rail corridor through Cambridge has been put off by community resistance.
The Green Line extension is one of the most promising transit projects in the country. It is expected to carry about 45,000 daily riders along its four-mile, two-pronged route, with termini in Somerville’s active Union Square neighborhood and Tufts University, just across the Somerville city line in Medford (see map below of the green dotted line), following two existing commuter rail corridors in a fully separated right-of-way. The state has previously said it plans to begin construction at the end of next year, with the opening of the first stations planned for 2016. The program is expensive — about $1 billion for its completion.
The Grand Junction, meanwhile, is a lightly used railroad that runs from Boston University, across the Charles River, through Cambridge, to the existing commuter rail corridors in East Cambridge; it is the only link between the commuter rail corridors emanating from Boston’s North and South Stations, which are on opposite sides of downtown. The Grand Junction, purchased from CSX in 2010, runs through the Cambridgeport, Kendall Square, and Area IV neighborhoods of Cambridge and past MIT, as seen below dotted in purple. The plan developed by MassDOT — abandoned for now — would have routed some commuter trains from Worcester to North Station along this route in order to provide better access to Kendall and decrease congestion at South Station, which is expected to see increasing use due to higher ridership on the commuter rail network and plans for expanded Amtrak Northeast Corridor operations, which end there.
Neighbors of the Grand Junction have opposed the commuter rail rerouting project from the beginning, suggesting that it would increase air pollution due to diesel emissions from the heavy, long, unelectrified trains. State Representative Tim Toomey, in concert with many of his neighbors, hailed MassDOT’s announcement last week that it would cancel the program.
The state’s own studies suggested that the new train services, including a $30 million upgrade at Kendall Square, would do little to improve ridership; only about 300 new riders would be expected to use them. And the line’s six street grade crossings would have posed a significant problem, especially at Massachusetts Avenue, along which a huge percentage of the automobile traffic between Boston and Cambridge travels. And yet the Urban Ring, which would have partially run along the same corridor, was expected to attract 184,000 daily riders, many of them in Cambridge. What gives?
Fundamentally, the problem with the current commuter rail plans for the Grand Junction was that they would have provided infrequent, limited-stop service in an area of the region that demands frequent operations with many stops. Connecting Boston University with MIT and North Station without running through downtown remains a good idea. And neighborhood groups might get on board if the plan is adapted to include stops in Cambridgeport and Area IV, two neighborhoods with only minimal connections to the existing network. This project deserves to be resurrected using low pollution diesel multiple unit trains, electric light rail vehicle, or BRT on its ridership merits alone. Fortunately, MassDOT left the project’s development open as a future possibility.
Community opposition, on the other hand, is certainly not a problem for the Green Line extension, which has nearly universal support from Somerville residents and politicians, who are excited about the opportunity for better and faster connections throughout the city and into downtown. But funding this huge infrastructure program is the bigger concern. Following a lawsuit over the Big Dig project (which interred a highway through central Boston), the state agreed as a form of air pollution mitigation to fund a number of major transit projects, including the Green Line extension. But the costs of the project were forced on the already debt-ridden MBTA; no alternative funding plan has yet been developed.
Though the state is required by legal settlement to improve transit into Somerville, the fate of the Green Line remains up in the air; earlier this year, there were rumors that its completion might be delayed until 2018 or later. U.S. Representative Michael Capuano of Somerville sounded the alarm last week, suggesting that the state should limit its ambitions to reflect funding realities, especially while pro-transit Democratic Governor Deval Patrick remains in office. Mr. Capuano’s proposal would be to build the extension only to Union Square and Washington Street, failing altogether to address connectivity deeper into Somerville. New stations would be built on the commuter rail line to make up for the loss of light rail access.
Yet this proposal would fail to provide the all-day frequent service rapid transit lines offer the rest of the Boston region. And it would force those using the line to transfer at North Station, preventing them direct access to other destinations in downtown Boston as well as further out to Northeastern University, Boston University, the Longwood Medical Area, and Brookline. Using heavy diesel trains rather than electrified light rail vehicles — just as in the Grand Junction case — would likely increase air emissions in the area, defeating the mitigation aspect of the project altogether. Replacing the Green Line with commuter service operating less frequently would doubtless attract far fewer riders.
Like in many metropolitan areas, funding for transport in Boston and its close-in suburbs is always tight. The exciting opportunity to improve on the fantastic transportation use patterns already present in Cambridge and Somerville, however, should encourage local leaders and politicians to fight for new revenue sources. And in the process, they should argue for the refinement of existing transit plans to better serve communities along their routes.
Image at top: Very short freight train running along the Grand Junction near Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, from Flickr user SignalPAD (cc)