By Ted Pyne
Everett and its Lower Broadway corridor have been in the news, especially after the Encore Boston Harbor casino opening. However, the Casino isn’t the fastest changing part of the city. Using Census American community survey data, Everett’s population grew from less than 42 thousand residents to nearly 47 thousand residents from 2010 to 2018, a growth rate of more than 12% in eight years. At the same time, the city became significantly more diverse, as the city’s non-Hispanic white population fell from 64% to 46%, while Asian, Hispanic and African American shares increased significantly.
Given this rapid growth among a substantial transit-dependent population, MassDOT must view high quality Everett transit as a top priority. But current conditions are poor- the city has no key bus routes or rapid transit, requiring slow rides at low frequencies to a transfer at Wellington or Sullivan. Luckily, there are several in-progress projects and opportunities that, with better coordination and a shift in focus, could quickly deliver a significantly improved public transportation system.
In a report issued last year, the Lower Mystic Working Group called for an expansion of Silver Line 3 service in the Broadway corridor, running to Kendall and North Station via Sullivan. The current SL3 ends at Market Basket in Chelsea, pointing in the direction of Everett. However, the report avoids recommending specific infrastructure. This is a significant omission; MassDOT should commit to supporting Everett’s desire for center running BRT with physical separation. The extended Silver Line route should head along the rail right of way until 2nd Street, head up Alford Street until Route 16, then turn onto Broadway and run into Sullivan. On Alford St, the abutting properties are entirely industrial, making widening for BRT viable. Route 16 and Broadway are already multi lane roads, so the entire route can achieve bus priority.
The Alford Street and Broadway bus lanes should be center-running. While the expansion of bus lanes in Boston, Cambridge and Everett has delivered real benefits, existing curbside lanes are vulnerable to double parking, must frequently merge with traffic at bump-outs, and often become clogged with cars making right turns. For a service that will become the primary transit option for a fast growing city, partially-functioning lanes are not enough. Indeed, if it is not possible to implement center-running lanes, the priority should switch to building a Silver Line corridor along the Commuter Rail behind the Casino. This alternative would provide worse accessibility to the east side of Alford Street, but would achieve much higher speeds than curbside lanes or no priority at all (a totally unacceptable option that MassDOT has hinted at in the past).
MassDOT, and the FMCB, continually call for municipalities to build bus infrastructure. Chairman Aiello has proposed a $50 million fund for bus infrastructure, but the focus has remained on municipally owned infrastructure. In this case, Everett is already the region’s #1 champion of Bus Rapid Transit, and MassDOT should use current state projects to advance this transit option. Sweetser Circle, carrying Broadway over Rt. 16, is in the midst of $16 million of maintenance work. Rather than simply rebuilding car-centric infrastructure, MassDOT should use this opportunity to add bus priority to Broadway and the Rt. 16 on- and off-ramps used by the future SL service. At Rutherford Avenue, a $150 million project currently in the final design phase, the exact same approach should be taken- add bus lanes for the future route. Secretary Pollack has noted that it is unusual to add bus priority infrastructure without a current service in the corridor. While this is a wise approach in a world where new service takes many years, Everett has consistently moved faster than other cities in adding non-car infrastructure, and this should be reflected in state planning.
Beyond the rapid implementation of a Silver Line extension, the MBTA should take steps to make the existing service operate better. Chelsea has growth even faster, and has an even lower non-Hispanic white share than Everett, making better transit an imperative. The worst aspect of SL3, the movable Chelsea Street bridge, can delay the service for over 30 minutes. When SL3 service extends to Sullivan or Kendall, the problem will become even worse, and maintaining frequency will effectively require turning buses around at Eastern Avenue, sending them back to Sullivan to avoid huge service gaps. The T has several options to solve this. The first, which should be immediately pursued, is decreasing the duration of the delays. Current policy is to open the bridge to its maximum height no matter the ship. This can add as much as 15 minutes per opening, and has no clear rationale. However, this would fail to fully resolve the problem. The new bridge is significantly slower than the older lift bridge it replaced. MassDOT should study the possibility of increasing the power of the lift machinery, and thus speed, of the bridge. While the cost may appear prohibitive, Chelsea and Everett combined have a higher population than Somerville, lower mean incomes, and a much faster growth rate. The Silver Line 3 was the most cost effective MBTA project in the last several decades, with a capital cost of less than $9,000 per rider (for comparison, the GLX was over $44k). Therefore, further capital investments are justified both on ridership and equity grounds.
With the recent release of MassDOT’s report on the regional traffic congestion crisis, detailing the hundreds of hours lost by 111 bus riders alone, providing better access to the communities north of Boston ought to be an urgent priority. Everett has already taken steps toward faster, more reliable bus service; now is the time for MassDOT to walk the walk on its support of bus priority and redesign ongoing projects to achieve the goal of true BRT in the corridor. At the same time, it should work to alleviate the issues plaguing the new SL3 service. When the Urban Ring was cancelled, the state noted that it grouped together projects with widely varying cost-effectiveness. But the value in splitting the ring is to actually do the effective projects. Silver Line 3 to Chelsea was a good first step, an extension to Sullivan would be even better. To achieve this, MassDOT should work with Everett to add bus priority to current projects in the corridor, and advance design funding for the remaining segments.
Ted Pyne is a member of the TransitMatters Board. This op-ed first appeared online in Commonwealth Magazine. It was reprinted with permission of the author.