Downtown View:North Station Transportation Troubles

December 24, 2015
By

Consider North Station. The Boston Redevelopment Authority has defined its area as extending from the river to New Sudbury Street and from Cambridge Street to North Washington Street.

Parts of that area, especially around the terminal itself, used to offer cheap office rents and, except in the West End, not much housing. Some streets were positively scuzzy.

Then came the Big Dig. In an example of how building infrastructure promotes economic activity, developers swooped in to claim the newly vacant land on which the old Central Artery perched. They have built hundreds of new condominiums and rental units, restored old buildings into cutting-edge office design, and even fashioned a new Boston Garden, which, anticipating the area’s promise, began before the old artery came down.

Development activity shows little sign of abating. More than eight million square feet of new residential and commercial space is now under construction or proposed in the next decade around North Station.

This freaks some people out—namely the area’s residents and business owners. Construction causes some disruption to vehicle traffic. And once the construction is finished, how are all those new residents and office workers going to get around, and how are others going to get in and out?

Enter the developers who are causing the construction. To assuage fears, eight of them have funded a $400,000 “transportation action plan”, or a TAP, for this area. The West End is included. But since the target area borders on Government Center, the North End, Beacon Hill and the main route from Boston Proper into Charlestown, those neighborhoods are also affected by activity around North Station.

The BRA already knows something about the area. Roadway and private development construction causes significant traffic congestion. Twenty-two percent of those entering the area drive.

But transportation is varied. Twenty-two percent of the people come into the area by public transportation. There are lots of pedestrians, with 46 percent of those who live, work or commute there doing so on their feet. Bikers make up only 4 percent of the traffic. It’s such a mess that no sensible bike rider would try to get through.

Any transportation action plan should make a bold attempt to reduce the number of cars, improve walking conditions for pedestrians and boost public transportation into and through the area. It must improve access to and from the North Station area while attacking traffic at its source, which is often from outlying regions.

As part of long-term planning, the TAP should consider incorporating the North South Rail Link, a project again gaining steam that was appended to the Big Dig and later suspended because of extra cost—and, probably, sufficient courage. (Full disclosure: I’ve been so impressed by the possibilities of this project that I’ve participated in the Dukakis-Weld group working to get a thorough, updated study on its challenges and benefits.)

A 2004 study during the Romney Administration said a NSRL “would attract the largest numbers of commuter rail riders and new transit users of all the commuter rail projects examined for the [Program for Mass Transportation]”. The PMT estimated that the NSRL, which proposes to connect by new underground rail lines the terminals at North and South Stations, would add about 96,000 riders to our commuter rail system and remove from local highways 55,000 cars, many headed toward North Station. They rated it high priority. Backers such as architect Brad Bellows say the project is “probably the single most effective step we can take to improve transportation in the Downtown North area.” See a thorough description of the project at www.northsouthraillink.org.

The Green Line also runs through North Station, and its extension would provide another option for drivers coming from points north along its right of way. Those with an interest in the North Station area should press to make sure the GLX is built.

The MBTA seems to be in free fall at the moment. But public transportation has been shown around the world and in such unlikely places as Houston and L.A. to be the best way to relieve traffic, promote economic prosperity and better a region’s quality of life. Voters elected Charlie Baker partly because they believed he could manage such things.

            So we should not give up on public transportation just because some bad actors have disappointed us. The area around North Station’s terminal is the place to start anew.

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