In 1892, a state commission developed a series of plans to deal with the complete gridlock that downtown Boston had become. It proposed banning vehicles not making deliveries from downtown streets during business hours, reducing the number of grade crossings for the numerous railroad serving Boston, constructing a trolley tunnel under Tremont Street and the Common, and creating a 13.4-mile elevated rapid-transit system serving downtown and nearby neighborhoods and suburbs.
The Rapid Transit Commission called for mostly elevated lines and stations and only reluctantly supported subway tunnels where absolutely required due to impracticalities of above-ground lines, such as at Park Street Church, because it felt riders would not want to descend into and ascend out of deep holes in the ground, in part because of how cold it could get in stations deep underground:
The best medical opinion deprecated the shock which would attend the plunge from the temperature of our sunny streets in midsummer to the icy chill of these damp sub-cellars. To be sure, it was replied, "But they may be artificially heated," - and so undoubtedly they may be, and they may be satisfactorily ventilated, perhaps, by and by; but as tunnels are now operated, and in view of the temperament and habits of our people, so little inclined, so far as we can learn, to go far underground with electric light when they can go above in the sunlight, we thought it very doubtful if such a means of transit would attract any considerable patronage in competition with the ordinary street car; and we feared that it would fail to relieve the surface to any perceptible extent, or to quiet the demand for some overhead system of transportation.
Tthe commission proposed two rapid-transit lines through the heart of the city, with extensions at their ends for riders coming in from or going out to outlying neighborhoods or suburbs - and with connections to each other so that trains from one line could cross to the other.
The commission proposed an elevated line up Washington Street from Waltham Street in the South End to Park Square via Waltham and Tremont streets to Park Square, from which it would cross over Boylston and Charles Street and onto the Common, which it would dip underground about where the tennis courts are now for a tunnel to Park Street - with "abundant light and air from frequent openings to the surface." The tunnel would continue to Scollay Square - basically today's Government Center - where it would rise back up into the air and continue to Causeway Street.
The other line would start near what is now South Station, head up to Post Office Square, up past the Custom House and Quincy Market and then up a widened Cross Street (back when Cross Street was more than just a glorified parking lot at the entrance to the North End) to Causeway Street.
The lines would have nine stations: Two on Kneeland street, one near what is now the South Station complex, one between Harrison and Washington; Park Square; Tremont Street under the Common, across from West Street; Scollay Square; Bowdoin Square; The "Northern depots" (today's North Station); Haymarket Square; Quincy Market, Post Office Square and Atlantic Avenue near what is now the entrance to South Station.
The commission proposed extending these lines with lines out to outlying neighborhoods and suburbs:
- An elevated line heading from Park Square to Dudley Square in Roxbury via Tremont, Waltham and Washington streets - with the possibility of extending that all the way to Franklin Park.
- A line into Cambridge from Causeway Street via the bridge over the Charles River dam, and from there down Third, Main and Mount Auburn streets into Harvard Square - a line the commission said could be extended further west at a later date. The commission said it would not be averse to having this line branch off after the dam to head down Somerville Avenue to Union Square.
- A line from Fort Point Channel to City Point in South Boston by way of Dorchester Avenue and Broadway to East 3, Emerson and East 4 streets.
- A line to Charlestown from Causeway and Haverhill streets to City Square, via a bridge that has since been torn down, and then down Main Street to Sullivan Square. The commission said not long after, the line should be extended to Chelsea, which was "suffering great delays and inconvenience" from not having any direct land routes to Boston and from having so many grade crossings from the Boston and Maine.
The commission said it appeared at the time that Brighton was adequately served by street cars and that the proposed trolley tunnel under Tremont Street and the Common would be enough to reduce delays, but that extending an el down Commonwealth Avenue would be easy enough should conditions change.
The commission pooh-poohed complaints about how an el running through part of Boston Common - and widening Tremont, Boylston, Beacon and Park streets by taking land from the Common - was a bad thing.
For one thing, the commission wrote, the greater good demanded it - Boston was becoming choked in its own traffic; there were places downtown where one could walk faster than any street car:
The great thoroughfares which the needs of the city will shortly require cannot be brought to a full stop at the line of the Common. When different public interests conflict, the lesser in importance must give way. To adopt the reverse course would be to allow sentiment to run mad, or in this case to make a fetish of the Common.
For another thing, the commission said, part of the reason to resist carving up the Common was because it provided necessary respite for the lower classes living in "crowded and unhealthy tenement-houses" downtown, but the projected success of the new rapid-transit system would bring so many new workers downtown that the current tenements would "dissipate almost to the point of extinction" and so there would no longer be much need for a place for poor people to get "breaths of fresh air," because they would all move to nicer homes in less congested district at the farther ends of the transit system.
In fact, the commission criticized those who would preserve the Common as standing against the interests of poor tenement dwellers:
To defeat such a social reform by an alleged desire to safeguard the interests of the poor would be to signally mistake the shadow for the substance, and to lose the latter in an effort to keep the former.
The commission also considered what we would now call the north/south rail link - and promptly rejected it. The commission concluded there was little demand for a connection between Roxbury and Chelsea, and that the tourists who would be the main beneficiary of a through line in Boston mostly wanted to spend a day or so touring the city and so would not really be bothered by having to get from one station to another.