Upcoming Study to Look at Dedicated Bus Lane on the Mystic/Tobin Bridge

Getting over the Mystic/Tobin Bridge by bus might become even faster if an upcoming study recommends implementing a dedicated bus lane on the bridge after construction work wraps up in 2021.

On July 16, the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) membership voted to approve a 12-week study that will collect data relevant to the use of travel lanes on the bridge. MassDOT indicated it has made no commitment regarding how lanes of travel will be used after the work zone lane takings are no longer needed in 2021. The agency said they will get the data and share it with the public, and then engage in a community process about how the lanes that have been closed for construction could be used in the future. If it pans out, one of the closed work zone lanes could become a managed lane.

A managed lane could be one of the following options or even other options not mentioned: bus-only-lane, High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane with the number of occupants per vehicle to be determined, an HOV lane for vehicles that would have reduced or no tolls.

In March 2020, MassDOT completed Phase I of the Tobin Bridge Managed Lane Study and requested that Central Transportation Planning Staff (CTPS) provide computer modeling support for an analysis of various bus and/or high-occupancy-vehicle lane treatments for Rt. 1, including the Tobin Bridge, and help look at the potential benefits as part of a second phase of the study.

That was approved on July 16, and so far some are applauding it, including State Rep. Dan Ryan – a long-time advocate of pedestrian and public transportation in Chelsea and Charlestown.

“I want to thank the MPO for taking a hard look at the possibility of a bus lane and/or HOV lane on the Tobin,” he said. “I’ve worked with my colleagues in the House and Boston Mayor Walsh’s office to get a bus lane along North Washington Street for the last mile of the journey into Boston. The Chelsea City-Council and City Manager have also worked on re-thinking Broadway. This is a great opportunity to re-envision public transportation from points North into Boston. I fully support the concept.”

The issue with the bus on the Tobin Bridge is that while there are bus lanes in place in Boston – and lanes planned for Rutherford Avenue and the North Washington Street Bridge in Charlestown – there is no such accommodation on the bridge. That often means buses headed over the bridge have a smooth ride, then get bunched up on the bridge. Having a potential bus lane or managed lane concept could

Tegin Teich, executive director of the MPO, and MPO researcher Scott Peterson said their role is to study the possibility of adding a managed lane of some type – whether a bus lane or an HOV lane – to the bridge. They will study the potential positive impacts, but also study whether such a change could simply divert traffic to adjacent roads – such as in Everett or East Boston.

Peterson said they do this using computer modelling that has been in place for more than 20 years, though updated constantly.

“MassDOT came to us to try to understand how this change to the Tobin Bridge would result on bus service – the 111 route to be specific,” he said. “If you have bus lane dedicated on the Tobin Bridge, would you decrease trip time and would people be enticed to take that mode share.”

He said they would study a bus lane concept and an HOV (two or more people in a vehicle) concept.

Teich said they will have a better understanding of what might happen if the change is made after the study.

“Running those models allows us to establish and see the potential reaction,” she said. “It allows us to think and understand what a re-purposed lane would mean.”

One potential they will have to look at is if it would mean increased congestion in the general traffic lanes, thus pushing people and traffic elsewhere.

The first phase of the study will being this Friday, with the MPO beginning to collect data and to bring on a consultant. The second phase of the study, involving the HOV lane concept, will take nine months to complete.

MassDOT said the discussion started due to the taking of the lanes on the bridge for construction over the last 18 months. It made sense to study whether new lane usage could benefit the public before restoring those lanes in 2021.

In other, more residential or regional roadway – such as in Everett and in Boston – bus lanes have been shown to save up to 12 minutes on a transit trip due to not getting stuck in congestion.

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