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Massport, Boston feud over possible South Boston bus improvements; which could include letting truckers use dedicated bus lanes

A war of words between Massport and city planners broke out this week over a city proposal to create dedicated bus lanes in the "Summer Street corridor," with each telling local business owners to ignore anything the other side says.

At issue is Boston's ongoing South Boston Seaport Strategic Transit Plan, in which city transportation officials and the BPDA have been trying to figure out how to fix the Gordian traffic knot the South Boston waterfront became after development exploded in a previously lightly populated area basically served by a single bus line.

Earlier this week, city officials say, Massport e-mailed Seaport businesses urging them to, if not call up the BPDA and yell, at least e-mail the agency with complaints about the potential impacts on businesses that rely on truck traffic of possible dedicated bus lanes on Summer and nearby streets.

Boston Streets Chief Chris Osgood and BPDA Director Brian Golden fired back yesterday, expressing surprise that Massport is getting all angsty over a plan it's been involved in creating and that, in any case, they recognize the importance of trucking in a district in which the city and Massport both let a once extensive rail network wither and die - specifically by agreeing to let truck drivers use any dedicated bus lanes.

Also, they retort, unlike Massport, the city has to consider the needs of not just industrial concerns, but residents and workers in the area - and besides, it's time for Massport to step up and do something about all the traffic it's basically responsible for by allowing non-port-related development on the land it owns along the waterfront:

Since the early 1990s, Massport has successfully planned, permitted and constructed over 7.4 million square feet of new non-port related development in the South Boston Seaport district. This includes residential, office, hotel and other commercial uses. With this development and density and pressure on transportation infrastructure, Massport has generated significant revenue and is therefore in a position to support mobility solutions and improvements. Massport needs to be holistic and help create real solutions that serve the needs of the entire South Boston Seaport community and all users (residents, retail shoppers, tourists, conventioneers, restaurant patrons, commercial office and industrial and R&D workers) and all modes [mass transit, cars, pedestrian, bikes, and the trucks that also serve the BPDA’s tenants at the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park (RLFMP)].


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The silver line in the south end is plagued by double parking, trucks, vans and no enforcement.

Voting closed 3

A big reason the rail line use withered was the fact that double-stacked container cargo couldn't get under the bridges in South Boston and the Allston yards, doesn't make sense to handle the containers twice. If the Feds (read truck/diesel lobby) weren't so anti-freight train and trains in general they could have funded lowering the grade to allow double stacked from Conley Terminal to Worcester and beyond. Another reason why we can't have nice things (sigh).

Voting closed 6

First, there is no requirement that containers need to be double stacked, so freight would be able to get under said bridges. It is less economical, yet easily more economical than sending the freight between Boston and Worcester on individual trucks with their fuel and labor costs. Surely the second stack could be handled in Worcester or wherever the railroad wants to construct the trains.

Second, you do realize that typical truck shippers have been moving their trailers on to trains more and more, right? Your view that the trucking side of freight is hostile to rail is right, as long as we are in the period before the 1990s.

Voting closed 3

That depends how much effort and time are involved in transferring the trailers onto the train, waiting until the train is complete, driving it to the other location, and transferring the trailers off again. For a short haul like Boston to Worcester, the logistics of the transfers might cost more time and money than just driving them on individual trucks.

Voting closed 3

1) There isn't enough sorting space at any Port of Boston facility to stack intermodal cubes by order of final destination. It takes an enormous amount of staging acreage that Boston does not physically possess to fumble around for the correct cube and lash up a train full of stacks such that the double-stacks are all going to the correct destinations. The ports that send double-stack rail shipments straight off the boat are cosmically *yuuuuuuger* than Boston. Any outbound rail loads from the Port would have to make a mandatory stopover at CSX-Framingham regardless for basic sorting and classification because there's no space to do that at the port itself, so there's an absolute requirement to begin with that all exiting cubes be single-stacked because they're unsorted.

The entire route--from Southie, down Fairmount Line to Readville, Franklin Line to Walpole, MassDOT Framingham Secondary to Framingham, and Worcester Line points west--has ample clearance for single-stack cubes, and the well cars that 'cup' the cubes slide just fine underneath the platform edging of the Fairmount Line's full-high passenger platforms.


2) The reason why there is NOT a rail connection right now to Conley Container Terminal is because too few of the cube loads coming in are going far enough out from Greater Boston to need a rail assist. Rail requires certain economies of scale, like drayage distances of 250+ miles or mega-hubbing the like sending large % of what cubes come off the boat at Conley to Albany or Portland or something. We don't need that; nearly all the stuff being unloaded there is going little further than I-495 on a single truck shift. It's very different from CSX-Worcester where the double-stacks are arriving from cross-country, being merged in Albany, and then going to inside- 495-land truck shifts from Worcester terminal to spread all around New England. Because Boston's a small terminal nestled on the coast between mega IM terminals, Conley specializes as a truck-only local IM terminal...because that's the one specialty Massport could come up with that gave it a business niche not better-covered by its much more massive port neighbors in NY/NJ, St. John's, and Halifax.

When Conley was last served by street-running rail down E. 1st St. in the mid-90's, it was before Massport rebuilt Conley as a specialized container port. There was no intermodal rail coming out of there...just miscellaneous boxcar loads from other long-gone businesses at the once-unspecialized port. No comparison to today's site usage. Now...the new Conley truck haul road to Summer St. is set up so that there's 1 track's worth of side reservation left for future-proofing such that building a small rail trestle over Reserve Channel a few feet to the side of Summer St. can hook the terminal back up to the existing Running Track track at the Drydock Ave. grade crossing for hauling TOFC single-stacks to Framingham. It is forever provisioned if future conditions merit. Conditions are just not expected to change in foreseeable future from it being a truck-only localized container port.


3) The need for better Port rail in Boston is not driven by intermodal at all, but rather by more specialty exploits. The Boston Autoport in Charlestown, for instance, isn't going to be much of a rail facility either. The ship-offloaded cars are mostly for car dealerships inside I-495, while the Lowell Line can't take modern 19+ ft. tall tri-level autoracks from the dormant Mystic Wharf Branch rail connection...only the long-obsolete bi-levels that are now in very short supply nationally. The giant CSX autoport in East Brookfield and Norfolk Southern/Pan Am autoport in Ayer take cross-country loads, and Port of Quonset Point, RI is the designated regional ship-to-rail facility for sending full tri-level racks to Ayer/Brookfield loaded straight off the boat.

You have to ID true unmet needs for finding reliable biz exploits at Port of Boston. Perishables, for instance...we don't have nearly enough of that. And it's important for us to be able to self-steer a level of regional stability in wholesale food prices so it remains affordable to eat at a restaurant in Greater Boston or shop at supermarkets without being pinched by price shocks. New York City invested heavily in its rail-served Hunts Point Market for exactly that greater measure of local wholesale control, and there's a definite need for more of that up here.

Massport's long-range plans to add a rail spur off the existing Southie track up Tide St. to Marine Terminal is primarily so that site can handle refrigerator cars from the seafood warehouses already there and to infill the Marine T. site with all manner of more of the same. Marine T. is also a possible (now probable?) landing point for the Boston Food Market at Widett Circle now that they've put the Widett facility up-for-sale. Widett Market was constructed hastily in the early-70's after Mayor White evicted those vendors from Faneuil Hall, so modernized facilities at the Port built to proper 21st century efficiency specs can swing a whole lot harder than the half-assed layout of the Widett facility ever could.

It's also why privately-owned Everett Terminal is going to need some rail upgrades. New England Produce (where daily loads of fresh supermarket veggies come in for the overnight restock shifts via rail-to-truck transloading in Framingham) currently has to take inefficient old shrunken-height fridge railcars because the 3 road overpasses over Commuter Rail @ Sullivan Square and a freight crossover further inbound by Boston Engine Terminal that passes underneath the Orange Line Community College viaduct are about 1 to 1⅓ feet shy of modern larger fridge cars. NEPC's carloads are down sharply of late because of the clearance restriction and diminishing availability of the obsolete fridge cars. Very simple track-undercutting job will do the trick to allow them to receive modern cars, but now that the T's Rail Vision is planning for electrification of Newburyport/Rockport they'll just want to wad up for approx. 3 ft. of track shaving so the national-standard fridge cars to Everett can fit under electrification. For a few hundred grand's worth of weekend track work NEPC would be able to recover all of its business lost to shipping inefficiency and be able to densify considerably from there.


So look to where the exploits are at a port that has to live within niches of specialty needs. Intermodal, autos...not so much. Wholesale foods...yes. Other things (maybe more shipping of loose bulk aggregates like sand/rock for concrete/pavement that don't fit neatly in truck weight limits) can run the gamut as additional potential exploits. But the economics of 'tweener' ports like ours requires laser-like focus on what's essential, and lots of vigilance against any surplus-to-requirement mission creep (for example, building intermodal rail to Conley to say you "can" not because you have any airtight business case before 2050 for attempting it).

Voting closed 3

Who has underpasses under D Street? Highway traffic (Mass Pike) and truck traffic (Haul Road). Oh, also there's that one remaining freight track that sees no trains.

Who sits at a light that stays red for a long time when there's no cross traffic? Silver Line buses.

And what goes on in Massport's South Boston Waterfront "Transportation" Center? Parking, lots of it.

Voting closed 13

BPDA (f/k/a BRA) and Massport are both self-promoting gangs of tax-fattened hyenas. Neither agency is fully transparent about their assets or operations. Having said that, in this argument, the voice of reason is coming from Massport. The City Hall gang is using the current situation to unilaterally impose changes which will substantially adversely affect the quality of life for residents and businesses when things finally return to normal.

Voting closed 14

They can bicker about "dedicated" lanes for a "rapid" bus line all they want, but until Track 61 is put into passenger service, these are not serious plans and they will not make any impact on traffic.

Voting closed 4

False dichotomy. Track 61 doesn't provide usable passenger service. The need to cross Amtrak's incredibly busy Southampton Yard switch complex kneecaps potential service frequencies on Track 61 far, far too low to matter. It won't be able to sustain 15-minute clock-facing bi-directional frequencies that are considered the minimal baseline for the Regional Rail transformation of the inside-Route 128 zone commuter rail because of the constant interruptions from cross-cutting moves. Instead of there being a shuttle every 15 minutes, it'll be a hiccup-fest of bunching where you may get 2 trains in a span of 5 minutes...then nothing for 20 because a bunch of Amtrak and Old Colony commuter moves have priority...then an attempted climb-back out of the bunching hole...then a brand new hiccup. Both directions.

It's functionally useless at that rate of punctuality. But moreover, it's a stretch to even say "once every 15" is enough for all the short-hop traffic that does go through the neighborhood where a more frequent churn of buses and Silver Line offer better options. It's not like the thing is going to offer useful intermediate stops, either. Down in the pit next to Haul Road at maximal squeeze there's no room for platforms...so you don't get a transfer to the 9 and 11 buses at the W. Broadway overpass or a quick one-block jaunt to the Red Line at the Dot Ave. overpass. You're pinned in nonstop from BCEC to either South Station, Back Bay, or whatever other dart-throw commuter rail stop somebody's envisioning for it this week. That's not "neighborhood" transit at all, and if the frequencies also don't match...well, it's endemically BAD transit any which way you slice it.

Maybe there'd be something here if there were a flyover ramp of the Southampton switch complex. But there isn't, and at 1.5% maximum allowable grades for new RR construction there's no physical means of getting up/down fast enough to pass all the conflicting infrastructure. So Track 61 functionally is a freight-only route if the only transit you can build on it to say you built transit on it...is godawful unworkable transit at frequencies no one will ride over a bus in a striped line.

There's a reason why the most tiresome continuing overhype for Track 61 comes from business leaders and politicians who you can be assured never ever need to ride transit in their own lives. Same ones who keep proposing Seaport gondolas and other non-useful toys like that; it's vapid monument-building for their sake, not a service meant to be usable, functional, or conform to travel demand patterns as they are. The neighborhood can--and has with several prior attempts--smelled the latest house-of-cards proposal gambit on 61 giving way before it even hits the formal dead-end via Amtrak statement of clarification that it flat-out can't run as often as promised. They all rest on incredibly ugly longshot kludges...all-sizzle/no-steak designed to bait short attention spans while their basic-most vital numbers simply don't add up.

I think at this point the neighborhood is demanding real usable solutions, even if they are thoroughly unsexy on a render. Sometimes there's simply no there there with the high-concept distractions. Maybe BCEC honchos and micro- attention span pols won't get with that program until we've burned through another dozen fly-by-night Track 61 passenger proposals all ending the same way, but the neighborhood is more than ready to move on from those distractions and get real.

Voting closed 9