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|Craig Kelley for Cambridge City Council in 2015|
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. . . many of Boston's interior neighborhoods . . . still lack effective mass transit . . .
. . . Involving a system of dedicated busways and surface routes and costing hundreds of millions of dollars . . .
. . . critics of the Urban Ring fear that the dedicated bus routes, once built, will be expanded to allow for truck traffic and . . .
The Return of the Ring
As the Big Dig winds down, many of Boston's interior neighborhoods and surrounding communities like Somerville, parts of Cambridge, and Chelsea, still lack effective mass transit. True, there's the Silver Line bus route and some expanded commuter rail lines, but to get from point A to point B in Boston's interior all too frequently requires also going to points C, D, and E in the MBTA's spoke-and-radius system.
Enter the Urban Ring.
Unfortunately, no plan survives its first contact with reality, and the MBTA's Urban Ring is no exception. While Phase I of the project, adding and updating regular bus routes in the area, has been successfully completed, Phase II has proven to be much more problematic. Phase II was to be the MBTA's implementation of a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system. Involving a system of dedicated busways and surface routes and costing hundreds of millions of dollars, its environmental review alone is already months overdue.
Nationwide, many are pushing BRTs as low-emission, high-capacity vehicles on a semi-smart system of dedicated routes and priority signaling. Costing far less than traditional light rail, BRTs form the backbone of many transit systems. While proponents of BRTs point to the crucial linkage these systems provide, critics argue that without fully dedicated roadways, BRTs are simply regular bus lines, slugging it out with everyone else on our roads. In Boston, critics charge that one need look no further than the MBTA's Silver Line to see how giving a bus line a fancy name and nothing more does not make it anything other than a regular bus line.
Phase II of the Urban Ring would mean building a series of bus viaducts, dedicated lanes, and regular service roads for the new bus line. Where there are viaducts, busses would cross the Charles or otherwise ride above surface traffic on dedicated roads. In a few other places, such as Melnea Cass Boulevard near Northeastern and Roxbury, the Urban Ring BRT would run on dedicated rights-of-way. Otherwise, these proposed busses will mix with regular surface traffic, just as the Silver Line currently does, with all of its congestion, delays and noise.
In addition to questioning the logic of creating a new mass transit system mired in surface traffic, critics of the Urban Ring fear that the dedicated bus routes, once built, will be expanded to allow for truck traffic and, eventually, automobiles as well. In fact, MBTA officials have already hinted at the possibility of letting trucks use these dedicated routes since there would be plenty of capacity for non-MBTA vehicles. In particular, making the busways available for other traffic would allow commuters and trucks to exit Route 93 South and cut through parts of Somerville and the Riverside/East Cambridge parts of Cambridge on their way to Brookline or Allston/Brighton.
Finally, critics fear that when Phase II of the Urban Ring is completed, the powers that be will decide that the billions needed for Phase III light rail are not available, leaving Boston with an expanded bus system but not much more.
Of course, these critics have their own suggestions for providing alternative mass transit opportunities, opportunities that they say will provide more immediate effective mass transit for less money than the Urban Ring's Phase II. One alternative mass transit project that critics of the Urban Ring support, besides the Grail-like North/South rail link, is an extension of the Green Line into Jamaica Plain down the Washington Street Corridor. This would actually replace lines that were removed when the elevated Orange Line was relocated years ago. Advocates of the project claim this would result in a per day ridership increase of tens of thousands, while providing more equitable mass transit service to Boston's communities of color.
A second alternative project is to install a surface trolley line that runs from the Kendall Square MBTA station along the existing Grand Junction Right of Way, over the Charles on the existing bridge, through the rail yards, and eventually winds up near Market Street. This line would use existing structures and provide a circumferential route connecting parts of BU, MIT, Harvard, Cambridge, and Allston/Brighton, all for an estimated $25 million.
At this point, alternative transportation advocates want a clear idea of what the MBTA has planned, both for the Urban Ring and its more general services. To many, it seems as if the agency is determined to keep spending money on inefficient and poorly planned services while ignoring readily available, practical solutions to many of the area's mass transit needs.
In the coming months, the Greater Boston group of the Sierra Club (GBG) will dedicate much of its efforts to exploring issues associated with the Urban Ring and to promoting more efficient and equitable mass transit options. The GBG will host meetings to discuss transportation planning and will actively reach out to area residents to get more involved in advocating for better mass transit.
Cambridge resident Craig Kelley is a member of the Greater Boston Group Executive Committee.
First published in the Massachusetts Sierran