How Fast can the MBTA Go? The Future of Rapid Transit in Boston

The massive snows of 2015 have long since melted, but they did leave behind one, positive, long-term effect. The MBTA is finally getting the attention, and funding, it needs to bring existing rapid transit, trolley and commuter rail systems up to a “state of good repair.” As a result, a lengthy list of deferred maintenance will be addressed over the next several years, and the long-delayed Green Line extension to Somerville, 30-years in the making, is now fully under construction, with completion scheduled for 2022. Progress comes slowly with major transportation infrastructure in the Boston area.

However, increased commute times for people driving into the city in recent years, plus the addition of as many as 35,000 commuters on the new Green Line from Somerville within the next four to five years, brings to a head the need to not only maintain existing systems, but to further expand public transportation in the Boston area. How can this be done?

A new approach

There is a new plan under consideration by the MBTA to greatly improve movement of “T” riders across Boston by extending the Blue Line from Government Center to Fenway, Longwood and Riverside. Prepared with assistance from groups of civil engineering students at Wentworth Institute of Technology, this new plan would enable truly rapid transit through the core of the Back Bay into Fenway and the Longwood areas, and would relieve overcrowding on the entire Green Line system.

A new tunnel

The extended Blue Line would run in a new tunnel from Government Center, beneath Beacon Hill to Park Street, providing the long talked about Red Line/ Blue Line connector. From Park Street, the extended Blue Line tunnel would run deep beneath Boston Common, the Public Garden and Newbury Street, with stops at Dartmouth Street and the existing Hynes Station. The new tunnel would then continue west, beneath the Mass Pike, to the Yawkey commuter rail station and turn southwest in front of Fenway Center before coming above ground at Minor Street to continue on the existing  trolley tracks to Riverside, thus replacing the D-Line trolleys.

About time

Extending the Blue Line would provide true east-to-west rapid transit, which Boston so desperately needs. Imagine being able to travel from Hynes Station to Airport Station, on one train, in 12 minutes. Or from Riverside to the airport, on one train, in less than 40 minutes. Or how about being able to travel directly from Wonderland on the north shore, to the Longwood Medical area. The Green line trolley could never provide that kind of speed and efficiency.

In addition, by replacing the Green Line, D-trolleys the Blue Line extension would help to ameliorate  Green Line trolley traffic by adding repurposed D branch trolleys to the 3 remaining lines, thus  enabling the B, C & E branches of the Green Line to carry up to 40 percent more passengers. And commuters who drive into Boston from the west would be more likely to drive to Riverside if they knew the Blue Line could get them to their destination, faster, alleviating congestion on the Mass Pike.  Drivers from the North Shore would also benefit from the ability to ride directly from Wonderland to the Back Bay and Longwood Medical area, further reducing congestion in and around Boston.

What’s next

What we need now is a groundswell of public opinion against the ever-worsening commute times and conditions in and around Boston, and in support of an extended, truly rapid transit system. Commuting in Boston is only going to get worse, especially for drivers. Its been 32 years since the MBTA opened the Red Line Extension to Alewife.  Let’s not wait another 32 years for the next major improvement to the system. Let’s get this moving now.

James Lambrechts, P.E., is a Professor of Civil Engineering at Wentworth Institute of Technology.

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