A host of state transportation officials came to City Hall last week to discuss the potential extension of the MBTA’s Silver Line to Chelsea. If the number of attendees was any indication as to the level of interest local public transportation riders have in the prospects, the standing room only crowd seemed to be universally in support of the expansion project that would ultimately connect Chelsea with South Station.
“This is a great night for us all here in Chelsea,” said City Manager Jay Ash, who has been working on such an expansion of service to Chelsea for more than 15 years. “Giving us another connection to Boston, and especially the employment and destination centers at Logan Airport, the World Trade Center and South Station, will make it easier for us to experience all that Boston has to offer, and for others to experience the same right back here in Chelsea.”
The Silver Line is a bus rapid transit (BRT) service operates on four routes to South Station. Ash said the BRT could offer the city a rapid transit-like experience on a bus. In fact, the start of the community discussion on the expansion of the Silver Line is about the matters to which Ash alluded. Planners at the state Department of Transportation (DOT) are studying potential routes through Chelsea. Two routes are being eyed and compared, one that would allow for an express travel on mostly railroad rights of way, thereby avoiding the more congested alternative that would travel down Central Avenue to Bellingham Square.
Currently, the Silver Line starts at South Station and travels through several stations in the new, booming South Boston Seaport District, including stations at the World Trade Center and the Boston Federal Court. It is perhaps one of the areas where the greatest amount of new jobs have been created in the Boston area.
From the Seaport District, the Silver Line travels to the airport, and that’s where the service loops back to Southie. However, the new plan would take the Silver Line to the Airport Blue Line Station and then continue on to the new Bypass/Haul Road. Once through that, the Silver Line would travel across the Chelsea Street Bridge.
That’s where decisions need to be made.
Scott Hamwey, a DOT transportation planner who lives in East Boston and knows Chelsea very well, said DOT would be looking for major input as to where residents of Chelsea want the service to go.
If it’s end point would be in Bellingham Square/Broadway, then they would likely look at Central Avenue as an artery to bring the Silver Line.
However, a second alternative is to use a newly purchased railroad right-of-way behind the Box District. That alternative would likely connect to the Commuter Rail Station and then continue on to a terminus at Everett Avenue near the Mystic Mall and the new hotels.
“Most of the question marks in this expansion study are in Chelsea,” he said. “The biggest question is do we want to go to Bellingham Square and use the easiest artery, which would be coming down Central Avenue. The other alternative is to use the railroad right-of-way that starts near the bridge. If we use that alternative, even if our last station is at the commuter rail, we need a place to turn around. It would only make sense to go on over and have a station and turn-around at the mall and the hotels.”
While the Bellingham Square option would hit the most people and an existing transit hub, there are a great number of residents who would like to see the Silver Line travel next to the tracks and on over to Everett Avenue. Such a route would make the Box District a true transit oriented development, and would also connect residents to North Station (commuter rail), South Station (Red Line), Logan Airport and the Blue Line.
Also, having a connection from the Seaport District to a urban hot spot like the Mystic Mall would be a dream come true for City Planner-types.
“One big highlight of that option is it opens up great growth opportunity with the Seaport District, which is currently really hard to get to from Chelsea and East Boston,” said Hamwey. “We’re envisioning a 10-minute ride from Chelsea to the Seaport as long as the bridge is not up.”
Ash said he has heard from most residents that they prefer the quicker ride of the busway rather than the route through City streets.
“There is a classic transportation policy trade-off, a quicker ride versus a more convenient route. For the many I have surveyed, the quicker ride is almost unanimously desired, perhaps in recognition of how long some of the other buses we have going in and out of Boston can take,” speculated Ash.
He added, “I’ve floated out the Mystic Mall potential and could envision a bus hub and maybe even a relocated commuter rail station there. Again, that’s part of what DOT is looking to engage the community about.”
At the meeting, DOT officials and consultants took turns addressing the audience of about 100. They discussed the five-mile corridor that is being examined for what is being dubbed the “Silver Line Gateway” route. The corridor, which is the only one under review for expansion at this point, has been selected because of its high ridership potential and the diverse mix of dense residential and employment centers that could be connected. The DOT study will look at land use, demographics, traffic and environmental information to help determine what the possible final proposed route would be.
“Once the study is complete, what is the likelihood of it then getting funded to operate,” asked City Council President Dan Cortell, who was joined at the meeting by several of his colleagues.
Hamwey responded that money could be taken out of a transportation bond bill that is up for adoption at the State House. Ash later took the microphone to remind local residents what was as stake as future transportation and infrastructure funding is debated on Beacon Hill in the coming months.
“When you hear about efforts to raise revenues, think about all we just did on Washington Avenue, what we want to do on Broadway and on other streets throughout the city, think about bridges that need to be repaired, like the one on Washington Avenue over the railroad tracks, and think about public transportation and expanded service like this proposal.
“At the end of the day, it all costs money,” he continued. “That’s money we need to help us get to work, to school, to the hospital and to enjoy the entertainment and culture that’s available in Boston. The State has done a great job at consolidating this and eliminating that, but all the consolidating and eliminating isn’t going to produce the savings necessary to fund the fix of what we have and expand what we need.”
Nevertheless, Hamwey told the Record that the project could likely go forward with or without funding from the Legislature.
“Connections are so easy to make on this trip that you could even explore using traditional buses to make that service expansion for four or five years until you can purchase new vehicles,” he said, noting that the current Silver Line buses are at the midpoint of their useful life. “The secretary of transportation, Richard Davey, is very high on this project. We were asked to make three additional transit projects a priority in our budget. To date, this is the only one that has been identified…We think it makes sense to do the planning work now so we can implement interim steps if we have to or be well-positioned to do something bigger if the opportunity presents itself.”
The next of what is expected to be a total of four community meetings in Chelsea will take place in late April. Those wishing to review the information provided at last week’s meeting can do so at www.massdot.state.ma.us/silverlinegateway. The study is expected to conclude in September. No timetable on the possible start up of the service is yet available.