Going in circles on the Silver Line. Or, how the T could save $1m tomorrow.

In my last post on the Silver Line, I wrote about how the poorly-timed light at D Street causes unnecessary delays. If you’re lucky enough to get across D Street, you then go through the power change at Silver Line Way and then begin the loop back to get on to the Ted Williams Tunnel to the airport (and soon, Chelsea). The end of Silver Line way sits right above the tunnel portal. But to get to that point requires a roundabout route, often in heavy traffic, which takes a full mile to return you right to where you started.

If only there were a better way.

There is.

After leaving the busway, the Silver Line outbound route goes down the Haul Road, merges in to a ramp from the Convention Center and D Street, and runs fully half the distance back to South Station—in mixed traffic—before finally turning on to the Turnpike towards the tunnel and the airport. What’s the point of building a bus rapid transit corridor if you then spend the same distance sitting in traffic to get back to where you started?

What’s worse, the “Bus Rapid Transit” endures two traffic lights in mixed traffic, and this traffic is often heavy, especially when when convention traffic from the nearby convention center spills on to the highway at already heavily traveled times of day. The route is more than a mile long, and in perfect conditions takes 3 or 4 minutes, but in heavy traffic can easily take 10 or 15; this traffic especially renders the “rapid” part of BRT useless.

Before entering this morass, there is access to the tunnel via a ramp next to a state police facility. If the buses could use this ramp, they would save three quarters of a mile of travel, two traffic lights, a yield at a merge and, conservatively, two minutes per trip. Combined with the potential savings at the D Street light, these two improvements could save 10% of the total round trip time between South Station and Logan—or Chelsea.

Now, perhaps there’s a technical reason the Silver Line buses couldn’t use the ramp. Maybe it was too steep for the buses. But in 2006, when part of the tunnel collapsed, the T was granted permission to use the “emergency” ramp to access the tunnel beyond the panel collapse. A Globe editorial from that summer praised the T for its quick thinking in utilizing this routing. Yet when the tunnel panels were fixed, the buses were rerouted to the roundabout course which brings them halfway back to South Station before they enter the tunnel.

MassDOT actually has these buttons.
Time to put them in to action.

There’s obviously no physical reason this ramp can’t be used, since it was used in the past. And any argument that the merge wouldn’t be long enough to be safe is unconvincing, especially since it would only be used by a bus every four or five minutes, even when the Gateway project to Chelsea is completed. The in-tunnel merge has 1/10 of a mile before the lane ends, far longer than similar merges on to the Turnpike in the Prudential Tunnel. Suggestions that this would be unsafe are protective hokum; with appropriate merge signage (perhaps even a “bus merging when flashing” light) there should be no reason why this can’t take place safely. The Transportation Department, MBTA and State Police need to convene to figure out the best way to use this facility, but the answer certainly should not be the usual “no,” or “but we’ve always done it that way.”

There’s an environmental justice piece, too, especially with the extension to Chelsea, a disadvantaged city a stone’s throw from Downtown Boston, but a slow ride away by transit. Right now, Chelsea residents are at the whim of the 111 bus—and the traffic on the Tobin Bridge. It seems foolish to build a brand new bus line to Chelsea but not to address one of the major bottlenecks on the rest of the route. If the Governor is serious about implementing reforms to improve service and save money, he should look beyond specious claims of sick time abuse and at where interagency cooperation could save time for passengers and time and money for transit operations.

Dr. Evil. Transit economist.

It costs the T $162 to operate a bus for an hour. The SL1 Airport service operates 128 trips per day, and we can reasonably expect that the Chelsea service will operate with a similar frequency. Fixing the D Street light and using this ramp could conservatively save 4 minutes for each of these 256 trips, which would equate to an operational savings of $1,000,000 per year.

Is this a drop in the bucket as far as the T’s overall revenue is concerned? Sure, it’s less than one tenth of one percent. However, it’s a million dollars that could be saved, pretty much overnight, with basically no overhead investment. We spent more than half a billion dollars building the Silver Line tunnel and stations, and acquiring the buses. And the SL1 buses actually turn a (slight) operational profit! It’s high time we removed some of the stumbling blocks it’s saddled with and let it operate with a modicum of efficiency.


8 thoughts on “Going in circles on the Silver Line. Or, how the T could save $1m tomorrow.

  1. The inbound routing is even more ridiculous: it actually stops at the front door of the World Trade Center station before crossing D Street so it can get to Silver Line Way and wait to cross D Street again before stopping in the World Trade Center station. Fun fact: I found a pre-Silver Line MBTA map and it showed the "Pier Transitway (Under Construction)" as a dotted line connecting straight to the harbor tunnel without the crazy loopy loops that the actual Silver Line has to make.

  2. Yes, Arcady, but that's harder to solve. There's not an unused ramp right there ready to be put in to use if only people would screw their heads on straight (or get their heads knocked together). That is a much less traffic-prone part of the route (although not entirely traffic-free) and less frequently causes long delays and service gaps. And the only easy solution would be turning the buses right on to D Street and putting the power switch in the WTC station or something. Fun fact: If you get off a SL1 on the surface level, you can often go down the stairs and catch an SL2 ahead of it.

    This is a much more structural issue, inasmuch as the roadway was built without any direct access between the Silver Line and the Ted. On the outbound, it could be fixed, but not so much inbound. Of course, one really wonders whose bright idea it was to build it like that: was it originally supposed to be connected and they didn't have the money so they built this half-assed system and said "eh, good enough"?

    Imagine if buses transitioned directly from the busway tunnel to the highway. That would be something. It would be harder inbound, it would seem, to keep stray cars from entering the bus tunnel, so you'd probably have to have buses slow down for a gate to open, and have some escape route for cars (a nice waiting area where MSP could meet them and inform them of their transgressions. However, with the inbound I-90 exit ramp right next to the Silver Line incline at D Street, it would be conceivable to build a bus connection inbound, although I can't imagine it would come cheap (any time you dig holes in the ground, costs go up). Of course, the operational savings would certainly not be negligible.

    If only they'd built it the right way in the first place. I can't imagine it would have cost that much more to build direct ramps. The whole project cost north of half a billion dollars, so what more would $50 million have been? It would have paid for itself. But, again, we saddle these sorts of projects with bizarre routings, and then complain that transit doesn't make money.

    • In the inbound direction, why not have SL1 skip WTC, and have a middle fork for traffic coming from I-90 westbound in between the Congress St exit and the path to I-93 southbound which would pass under is the intersection of Congress St and B St and enter the bus tunnel?

      How would the stray private automobile issue here be any worse than at the existing D St portal?

  3. The State Police doesn't give a crap about bus riders. That's my guess. We already know how much contempt they feel about anyone not rich enough to own a car.

    For the record, I included the ramp suggestion in comments to the South Boston Waterfront mobility plan sponsored by ABC, along with signal priority for D Street. They included signal priority in their final report, but not the use of this ramp. They even included Silver Line Phase III in the report, the insanely expensive and unfeasible plan to connect Silver Line on Washington Street to the Transitway with a new tunnel. But not the simple and easy use of the ramp, which would save money, as you point out.

    Someone big and powerful does not want the Silver Line to function well. Could also explain why there's no signal priority yet at D Street, even though that would also be a simple, easy, money-saving change.

    • Oh, the State Police don't give a crap about anyone, bus riders and cyclists certainly included. But the State Police is a state agency, and they should be made to play nice with other state agencies. This would take some political will, but if the right person said "these buses are coming through here whether you like it or not" it could happen. I don't have my hopes up, but it's at least worth point out that if the governor is so concerned about revenue-saving reforms, he should look beyond specious sick time complaints.

      The SL III is dead, and good friggin' riddance. We learned the hard way that buses should not be put in tunnels, because they just don't have the capacity. The Urban Ring project touts how the capacity will be so high with a bus every 3 minutes and up to 2700 passengers per hour. Or two Red Line trains. If you're going to spend a billion dollars on a tunnel, put rails in it and build it to a wide enough grade that you can put in equipment that can carry 500 (three car set of LRVs) to 1200 (six car set of Red Line cars) passengers. The Silver Line is over capacity, which is a good, but very expensive, problem to have.

      The something big and powerful might be Massport. They are funded by parking, so they don't want it to be too easy for people to be able to get to the airport. But, again, this is the usual interagency squabbles which makes Massachusetts not work. So far we have the following players:

      Mass State Police

      If they were all put in a room and said "we're locking the doors until you come out with a policy that saves 5 minutes of running time for the Silver Line" they could work something out. But because every agency is its own little fiefdom, no one cares what happens anywhere else. So if the Governor is serious about reforms, he'll look beyond the T. Somehow I doubt he isn't.

  4. I honestly think they'd be better off having Massport create a (free for T riders) Airport shuttle to/from South Station (similar to the one they run to/from Copley now) and eliminate the SL1. Most people going to/from the airport aren't going to/from the Waterfront and the T needs the hybrid bus capacity for the people who are.

    • And there are only a limited number of dual mode buses. Given current levels of service, there are a few that can be spared for Chelsea service without having to cut anything else, but if the service proves unexpectedly successful, at some point they're going to need more buses. I'm actually a bit less worried about tunnel capacity: the Chelsea service will probably replace SL-Waterfront trips since their peaks are in opposite directions.

    • And, you could run this service 24/7, maybe with 30 minute headways overnight. The SL could have service to BMIP and Southie via the tunnel, with transfers at the surface. You'd have to have a better terminal for these passengers to make it an easy transfer at South Station (perhaps with ADA facilities, covered boarding, etc). And you might have traffic issues at rush hour.

Leave a Reply