Sunday, June 15, 2008

Boston Beat: Urban Ring Around the Rosie...

Although the United States has not quite mustered the will to begin spending hefty amounts of money on real mass transit improvements in its densest environments, there has been the first step. More riders on Mass Transit. Admittedly those numbers are low and the New York area still outranks the rest of the country more than 2-1 in terms of transit riders. But more people, to compensate for high gas prices, are taking the T, BART, Metro, El, or whatever you call it.

This is a particular godsend to the MBTA in Boston where declining passenger numbers (due to crappy service and misdirected capital improvements) required the legislature to rescind the law that forbade fare increased in a year when ridership fell. Between the Charlie Card and the higher ridership, the MBTA's problems lessened ever so slightly. If nothing else, it does not need to go to the legislature hat in hand and ask for help after having nothing to show--again.

Among the positive signs are glimmers of hope that the Boston area may be experiencing the first real transit improvements. One such project is the Urban Ring.
Anybody familiar with Boston's Urban form know that its system centers in the Financial District/Gov't Center. Therefore, going from Cambridge to Brighton or East Boston to Malden requires a trip into Boston or use of a bus, which is slow, affected by traffic, and weaves through other areas.

The solution proposed is the Urban Ring, a route that would roughly connect the JFK Library, Northeastern University, Allston and/or Kenmore, Harvard or Central Square, Somerville, and the cities on the other side of the Tobin Bridge. Although this project is necessary, the MBTA may have learned the wrong lesson from its previous system expansion boondoggle: the Silver Line, Boston's own "Bus Rapid Transit."

Dubbed the Silver Lie, by Roxbury and South End residents, it was the promised replacement for the Washington El torn down 20 years ago. They were told they would get rail, and they go a bus. The Silver Line's other tentacle, a South Station to Logan line via the Ted Williams is not AS bad given the complications of having a rail line go through and Interstate Highway tunnel. But the Washington Silver Line, declared a success after ridership increases timed to the shutdown of the original bus line down Washington, dubbed, has not been what the dense areas between Downtown and Dudley Square need.

The Urban Ring's route is not as dense, but needs a rail solution. Bus can only be a temporary solution used to provide faster service while better plans are put forward. Additionally, the proposal may call for reconstruction of the Grand Junction Railway, which runs between the rail networks feeding into North and South Stations. Such a move could imperil the Allston Beacon Park railyard, which employs many blue collar workers and reduces polluting trucks clogging the Turnpike and already on Harvard's chopping block (The Ivy League titan owns the land under the tracks) to invade the Allston neighborhood further.

Bus Rapid Transit is not necessarily foolish. Although insufficient there too, it works better in Greater L.A., less dense and less central than Boston. If bus rapid transit has a future it is in the suburbs linking communities on 128/I-95 or beyond or with the city's most outlier limits near the termini of the basic 4 subway lines.

Luckily sources do indicate that a rail line will be the ultimate goal. However it would not be the first time that that was promised, ergo the Silver Line. This project should go forward, but if it is not done right and not done with the commitment to see that happen then it will be an unmitigated disaster for Boston and a plague for Bay State taxpayers. Because this will involve state financing it is important that all Massachusetts residents demand it done right. We do not need another Big Dig. This is particularly relevant as 20% of all sales tax or one penny on the dollar from the entire state goes exclusively to the MBTA, not transit authorities around the state.

Finally, although the Urban Ring is needed, the MBTA must put its financial house in order and begin to focus on improving and upgrading its track and signalling to improve service (and prevent accidents like the one on the Green line not too long ago). These things must be done before the state jumps headfirst into another massive Boston building blitz.

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