The early February news that state officials are prioritizing a direct connection between the Blue and the Red lines—albeit by 2040—begs the question: What are the statuses of other transportation projects in the region that need to hurry up and arrive already?
These projects range from the extension of two of the busiest T lines to app-unlocked electric scooters to charging for driving in Boston’s busier areas at busier times to a new way of thinking about parking.
Commuter-rail runs down the South Coast
Efforts to create a commuter-rail branch from South Station to Taunton, New Bedford, and Fall River—and points in between—have percolated pretty much since the service to those South Coast cities stopped in the late 1950s.
After fits and starts in the 1990s and 2000s due largely to ballooning cost estimates, things really picked up during the last several years with tens of millions in construction contracts doled out amid hundreds of millions in fresh funding.
Infrastructure work, including the replacement of four bridges along the future 52-mile route, is underway. And, in March 2018, officials decided on a first phase.
That Phase 1 will provide limited service from New Bedford, Fall River, and Taunton into Boston using the Middleborough secondary line and the existing Middleborough/Lakeville commuter-rail line. Phase 2, along the Stoughton Electric route, is still in the planning and permitting stages.
Pushing the Red Line past Alewife ...
Back in the 1980s, it was assumed that the Red Line would keep going after Alewife, perhaps as far out as Route 128. Thanks largely to locally based federal bigwigs such as House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Sen. Ted Kennedy, there was enough money for at least stations at Arlington Center and Arlington Heights.
Local opposition doomed the plan.
Given the ever-escalating cost of housing the closer one slouches toward Boston proper, a Red Line running out to less expensive areas would be a real game-changer (we think—this is all predicated on the T running well year-round).
As it stands now, the Red Line beyond Alewife is pretty much a pipe dream, with no serious planning or work underway.
... And pushing the Blue Line to Lynn
It turns out that the original plan for the Blue Line had it going well beyond its northeastern terminus at Wonderland—beyond Revere and into Lynn, in fact. There was federal money available in the 1970s for the extension and support at the state level.
Logistical and financing problems got in the way—as did local opposition in Lynn—and the plan was dropped long ago. A revival of the plan appears unlikely, though not out of the realm of possibility.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh in late January filed an ordinance that would pave the way for electric battery-powered scooters in Boston, which would probably spark their introduction throughout the region.
Specifically, the proposal—which needs City Council approval—would establish minimum safety standards for so-called shared mobility businesses, which include e-scooter companies such as Bird and Lime, and would license them to do business in the city.
The proposal would also allow officials to pilot e-scooters in Boston before any general rollout. As it stands now, the vehicles are simply illegal under state law, whatever their growing popularity nationwide. Walsh’s ordinance is meant to complement pending state legislation in favor of e-scooters.
The ordinance is also a move toward establishing regulations for any future e-scooters in Boston—where they can run, where they can and cannot be left or picked-up, etc.
It will take at least 90 days for the ordinance to take effect after its passed. And then it’s a matter of getting pilots up and scooting.
Directly linking North and South stations
Two of New England's busiest stations remain frustratingly separated in any direct sense. Connecting North and South stations would not only link up every T line save the Blue, but would ease connections for commuter-rail and Amtrak riders.
Indeed, such a link would create an unbroken rail route from Maine to D.C.
There does seem to be some movement on what’s called the North South Rail Link after decades of what-ifs and maybes. In December 2018, the state announced a possible design for the link, one that would involve a two-track tunnel under Congress Street with connections to the State and the Haymarket T stops.
This followed a feasibility study issued a couple of months before. As it stands, the North South Rail Link is still pretty much a what-if, with any start years off and the costs potentially prohibitive.
More Inner Harbor commuter-ferry service
This one seems like a no-brainer given the Boston region’s geography—water, water everything, etc.
About seven years ago, it looked like commuter-ferry service in the Inner Harbor, particularly between East Boston and downtown Boston, was due to get a serious shot in the funding-slash-frequency arm.
That’s because then-Mayor Tom Menino wanted to remake parts of the Eastie waterfront and to encourage a migration of tech companies to the area. A big part of that was a commitment to more and more frequent ferries.
And then nothing happened. There is Inner Harbor ferry service, to be sure, but it’s not frequent nor cheap enough to really foster a large number of regular commutes.
That may change. There have been studies since 2015 to analyze the feasibility of increased service—in particular, to see if a ferry ride can be as relatively inexpensive as a subway or a bus fare. And New York City recently expanded its commuter-ferry service, with fares comparable to subway rides.
Such increased service in Boston probably couldn’t come soon enough. Projects continue to open on the Eastie waterfront amid blistering demand. Case in point: The 80-unit Slip65 sold out in eight weeks in late 2017.
Finding a parking space in much of Boston and its surrounding cities and towns can be a daunting task, to say the least. The reason is simple: Too few parking spaces for too many cars.
While transit-oriented development and a better-maintained (and expanded) T might be the better options, there is another way to alleviate the Boston area’s parking crunch: underwater garages.
Hey, they’ve worked in Europe—check out the ones in Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
In Boston, underwater garages might be a little more difficult to pull off, given the myriad impacts their development would have, including on marine life, boats/ferries, and existing transportation infrastructure such as highway and train tunnels.
Still, it’s an intriguing proposition, given the region’s geography and its long, long history of bending that geography to its development will.
Tap and go on the T
Yes, it’d be fantastic if the T was free. But, until that fare-less utopia arrives, riders might have to settle for a faster way on and off buses, trains, and trolleys.
And that is exactly what the MBTA aims to provide via a switch to an all-electronic fare-collection system. The agency expects to finish the switch by May 2021. No more paying with cash on-board trolleys or buses. Instead, riders will likely just tap a credit card or a smart-phone app to a new kind of fare reader.
Those buses and trolleys, too, would have fare readers by other doors than just the front ones to allow for all-door boarding. And the current CharlieCard system will be rendered obsolete in favor of a new one (which will retain the “Charlie” brand).
That new Charlie system is supposed to allow riders to add and to store value through online accounts. And commuter-rail riders will pay digitally for trips before boarding (and tap out via app or credit card once trips end).
An all-electronic system will also allow the MBTA to better collect and analyze ridership data—and it might boost the prospects of a unified payment system.
One card to rule them all
Speaking of a unified payment system, Boston and state officials have been mulling either a CharlieCard-like plastic card or a mobile application—or both—that will work on the T and commuter rail as well as with the Hubway bike-share system and private transportation modes such as Zipcar and Uber.
Such a “key to the city”—as the administration of Mayor Marty Walsh calls it—would probably be unique among metropolitan transportation systems because of that private-mode aspect (users would also be able to use it to pay parking meters).
How close is the city and the state to developing this super-duper transit charm? Not too close—but there is a deadline of sorts. Officials would want to integrate any unified payment system with the MBTA’s switch to all-electronic fare collection.
And that switch is supposed to be done by May 2021.
Charging motorists to drive into the busier areas of Boston during busier times is not a new idea in the area, and tolls are a fact of life along the region’s highways.
But neither the city nor the state has ever gotten behind a fee for accessing the core commercial areas of Boston during rush hours. In fact, even when motorists choose to stay off the highways then, they’re then tolled at the same rate as people racing about at 6 p.m.
Also, the idea—not surprisingly—is not that popular with the public, and it would take expending some serious political capital to enact it. Plus, it could be a logistical headache planning which areas to charge for and how.
But there are a couple of major impetuses for enacting some form of congestion pricing in Boston sooner rather than later.
One is the the region’s mass transit system. It’s often a frustrating labyrinth of breakdowns, delays, cancellations, etc. The revenue from congestion pricing could go toward serious capital improvements (much like New York City and New York State are doing with a recently implemented surcharge on hired-car rides into Manhattan’s busier areas).
Heck, even Uber, which has done so much to add so many cars to the Boston region’s roads, supports the idea precisely because it could help the T.
The other impetus might be even more pressing than the next Red Line arrival. A recent blue-ribbon commission report called for Boston to take drastic measures if it hopes to go carbon-neutral by midcentury. One of those proposed measures was congestion pricing. Well?