Tales from the T: A silver lining

Graphic by Kayla Drazan

In my last column, I talked about the Silver Line, the black sheep of the T. To recap: The Silver Line was designed as Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) — buses providing subway-like service using several key design features, including high-capacity stations and dedicated lanes. What we got instead was a haphazard cocktail of overpriced construction, slow speeds and broken promises, an embarrassment of a BRT system. But that would change in 2018, when the SL3 line opened. 

The SL3 runs from South Station to the Seaport, before diving underneath Boston Harbor via Interstate Highway 90 to the Blue Line’s Airport station, where shuttle buses connect to Logan Airport terminals. It crosses the Chelsea Creek into Chelsea — a dense, predominantly-POC community historically underserved by public transit — before terminating at the Chelsea station of the Newburyport/Rockport commuter rail line adjoining Mystic Mall.  

What distinguishes the SL3 from the rest of the Silver Line is its use of a 1.3-mile-long exclusive busway between Chelsea Creek and Chelsea Station. Built on a former railway, this bus-only road is wide and straight with few intersections, a far cry from the congested streets on the rest of the Silver Line. Of course, the SL3 still runs through mixed traffic between the busway and the Seaport. But it’s fast, reliable and the closest thing we have to proper BRT. 

Now imagine a network of these fast, high-capacity busways encircling downtown Boston. Such is the vision of the MBTA’s Urban Ring project. Ever since its construction, the T has been plagued with a key design problem: All its subway lines feed into downtown, with no crosstown lines between the surrounding communities. This wasn’t an issue when most jobs, industries and attractions were downtown, but that’s no longer the case. Today, crosstown riders must transfer at packed downtown stations, or take slow, equally packed crosstown buses. Unsurprisingly, many use cars — maybe faster, but certainly unsustainable. 

The Urban Ring project seeks to fix this with a circumferential BRT line downtown. Starting from Seaport and going counterclockwise, the route would serve Logan Airport and Chelsea, before crossing the Mystic to serve Assembly, Lechmere and Kendall. Crossing the Charles over the Boston University bridge, the route would serve Kenmore, the Longwood Medical Area, Ruggles, Nubian and finally, Seaport. The route would host frequent service on several overlapping bus lines, some of which would diverge to serve Harvard and JFK/UMass. And half of the route would be on exclusive lanes or busways. 

Transfers would be available to every subway and commuter rail line, at existing or new stations, dramatically simplifying crosstown journeys. The line was expected to carry over 170,000 daily riders — more than the Green or Blue lines — many of which would be diverted from congested downtown stations. And in the future, the line could even be upgraded to a subway line. 

The BRT route would cost 2.4 billion dollars — and therein laid the problem. In 2010, the perennially penniless MBTA suspended the Urban Ring project for a lack of funds. But that wasn’t the end of the bus line: The Seaport to Chelsea section would still be built as the SL3, a taste of what could have been. And who knows — if the MBTA gets the funding and support it needs, the Urban Ring could one day become a reality. 


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