City to try to make Boston a major port again

The BRA is leading efforts to win federal stimulus money for a proposed $84-million revamp of the antiquated Marine Industrial Park (which includes the Black Falcon Pier), by among other things, adding facilities for handling larger cruise ships and restoring freight rail service back to the waterfront.

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Link for more info?

Is there a news article, press release, or web page about this project? How will the freight rail get to and from the piers?

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Ask, etc.

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From the Globe

Update: Let me add that the bulk of this makes a lot of sense. Building cruise ship facilities is almost always a no-brainer for cities. The ships bring in tourists, who flood into the city and spread their dollars around; and the facilities employ locals. The rail infrastructure probably makes sense, but only if the Boston Industrial Park continues to be, well, an industrial park. And the rebuilding of the cargo piers and roads are similarly linked to the future of the site.

There's no doubt that a lot of the current businesses down there are industrial, and could use this capacity. But a quick look at the current tenants also shows that in recent years, the mix of businesses there has diversified, significantly. In particular, design industry, publishing, and internet companies have been attracted to the large sites and cheap space, in easy proximity to transportation (well, transportation for people, not for goods.)

So this isn't exactly cut-and-dried. It's a question of where the city wants to place its bets. Can it, in fact, revive a moribund industrial park by improving cargo capacity and laying in rail? Or were those capacities allowed to crumble in the first place because few shipments were coming into the port, as shippers turned to cheaper ports, and industry favored suburban locations where rents were cheaper and land more abundant? In other words, if we build it, is there any reason to think that Boston possesses competitive advantages over other proximate sites that will reverse the secular decline of urban industry?

It all leaves me feeling a little skeptical. I'm an infrastructure geek; certainly, this makes more sense than spending the funds repaving highways, and if it's federal dollars, so much the better. But it's not as if the Marine Park is currently bursting at the seams with thriving industrial enterprises just begging for adequate infrastructure. And given the longterm trends, the city might do better to extend mass transit down to the docks. Cambridge, for example, transformed its old industrial district into biotech. The Fort Point area now houses much of Boston's creative industry. I'd think that the dock district might be better used to incubate the future than to hold on to the past.

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This is almost a good idea...

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But there is no current port business that would use rail. Plus, the westbound rail routes are convoluted, and westbound clearances aren't high enough to support the container traffic that Newark/Staten Island and Halifax generate.

Getting Harpoon a rail connection would make environmental and possibly economic sense. Not sure about anything else.

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rising oil prices and cap and trade vs. truck transport

Might rising oil prices and carbon cap and trade direct more traffic to rail rather than truck transport?

I don't pretend to know much about the specifics of whether this is worth it in the short-term or whatever, but it certainly makes long-term sense to me to lay down/revive the infrastructure for transport of goods from water to rail.

Water transport worked for hundreds to thousands of years, and it just might become more important in a lower-carbon future world. With it, we could see a huge resurgence in rail transport.

Certainly Newark/SI are going to see much higher volume in general, but perhaps Boston could emerge as a leader for Northern New England when/if the truck industry becomes moribund.

Anyway, my point is, Rob B., you obviously seem to know more about the practical problems with this project, but I certainly think it is a worthy goal that we might later regret not doing. No one can see into the future, but it just seems like a good, progressive idea. I hope it really would/will work.

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The details of the proposal

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The details of the proposal are now up on the BRA site. It breaks down into four components:

  • Expansion of Black Falcon Cruise terminal - $30 million
  • Track Improvement for the South Boston Marine Industrial Park Rail Road - $14 million
  • Improvements to the East, North and South Jetties - $34 million
  • Reconstruction of the FID Kennedy West and Access Roads - $6 million

The Cruise Terminal, as I wrote earlier, is a no-brainer. A great idea, and if we can get the Feds to pay for it, so much the better.

It's tough to see how restoring a half mile of railroad trackage, and building another mile's worth, is going to do any harm to the future of the area, and it may do some good. But let's be clear what we're talking about here. The existing container port - the Conley Terminal - is a MassPort facility. The containers that come in to Conley are trucked four miles to the Allston/Brighton Beacon Yards operated by CSX. I think what we're talking about here is restoring CSX Track 61, and rebuilding trackage along the preserved rail corridor that stretches north to the North Jetty, running past bulk cargo and warehousing facilities. (Diagram on pg 16) There are a handful of businesses there that could use it in the short term. But let's be clear - this is about the businesses in the area, not the rehabilitating the port itself. The industrial park is a city-owned facility, and that's what these funds would focus on. And a planning study done earlier this decade cautioned that rail development should be predicated upon a determination that "sufficient industry demand exists to warrant building it." So while ship-to-shore connections are a great idea, I don't think that's what this is talking about. And I don't see much evidence that this sort of investment is actually warranted by the existing mix of businesses.

I cringe as I write this, but the limited $6 million in road reconstruction actually makes a tremendous amount of sense, whatever the future of the area.

The restoration of the three jetties falls into the realm of 'speculative development.' The press release doesn't even bother making any claims on this front. It's not clear who would use these jetties, or for what. They're not part of the existing Conley Terminal container port, which is a MassPort facility. They're city-owned, and so presumably aren't slated to enable a Conley expansion. Why are we restoring them? Who knows?

The jobs figures here just leave me scratching my head. According the the BRA's own website, the BMIP has a 95% occupancy rate and 3,500 jobs. Yet the project promises to produce 3,500 more permanent jobs in Boston. How's it going to do that? Displacing high-volume, low-employment businesses out of the area, and replacing them with labor-intensive manufacturing operations? Or are we mostly relying on the multiplier effect - a small number of BMIP jobs being credited for the production of a large number of service sector jobs elsewhere in the city? The BRA, it seems, is once again playing a little fast and loose with its statistics?

A final thought: hasn't the Menino administration been touting the BMIP as the centerpiece of its biotech and small business initiatives? Spamming out press releases every time it gets a biotech firm to relocate into the area? Is there any coherence at all to these planning processes, or is it a purely opportunistic and scattershot approach - spend a decade luring biotech into a decaying marine and port area, and then when federal funds become available, proclaim that a relatively small investment can revitalize the moribund port district?

I'm confused.

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Cruise Ships

That makes a lot of sense - particularly given the harbor access to the airport. The Cruise Lines could operate their own shuttles.

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The poster above says the

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The poster above says the current Conley Terminal container yard trucks them to the Allston/Brighton CSX train yard.

Isn't that slated for being shut down with the purchase of the Worcester line by the MBTA?

How would that effect this proposal?

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Cruise ships already stop

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Cruise ships already stop there right? This would just be an improvement of the current facilities?

And I thought a rail line already existed. What are the tracks that run past the BCC?

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They'd add a whole new pier

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To handle mega-liners, three at a time. The Globe article says this would let them unload 4,000 people at once - I'd love to see the traffic for that (unless somebody's assuming people with large suitcases will all board Silver Line buses, and those don't go near the pier now when a boat's coming in for some reason).

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Yeah, that's not really well

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Yeah, that's not really well thought-through. But there's no reason that the arrivals/departures can't be moderately staggered. (The proposal, unlike the Globe, doesn't say they'd be unloaded at once, merely that the ships capable of carrying that many passengers could all be in port at once.) Think of Logan - there are dozens of jetliners at the gates, but they don't all discharge and load their passengers at the same moment. The point, I think, is that currently only one large vessel can tie up to the pier, and the processing facilities are outdated. So this would improve the shore-based facilities, speed processing, and enable multiple ships to tie up all at once.

Cruise ship terminals always pose this problem. No one wants them in the heart of a city - when the ships aren't tied up, it's just a huge amount of deadspace. But put them some distance from the heart of the city, and you're forced to have long queues of buses to take the passengers someplace else, and the taxi-stand from hell.

Still, it's a problem I wish we had. Cruise ships bring lots of tourists with money to burn. That's good for the city, unequivocally. We have more demand than we have capacity, and this would solve the problem. Unlike the other elements of the proposal, this once looks like a solution for a real problem, and not a solution in search of a problem.

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I took a cruise from San

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I took a cruise from San Juan last year. There were two ships holding 3,000 passengers and a third smaller ship (1,000 or so) all loading at the same time (Sunday). Traffic was not an issue, nor was it a week later when the three ships disembarked.

I cant say I understand why, but they manage the loading well enough that its not an issue. Part of the reason may be that its quicker to check into a cruise boat (20 minutes) than it is to board an airplane.

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