At a meeting in Framingham last night, Senate President Spilka sent MassDOT a message that should be very much appreciated by the inner core commuters that I represent: Use all the creativity you can muster to reduce congestion and please come up with solutions soon — before you start construction on the MassPike viaduct.

MassDOT made clear that they hear that message and accept the challenge.  MassDOT has been working for the past five years to design a project to replace the failing MassPike viaduct in Allston.  The project will straighten the MassPike, improve capacity and make it safer. It will create opportunities to expand Worcester commuter rail service.  

To accomplish all of that, the project will move the MassPike from the north side of the large abandoned rail yard in Allston to the south side of that rail yard.  By so doing, it will also make roughly 100 acres of land, currently owned by Harvard University, available for development. 

The project is spectacularly complicated, involving reconstruction not only of the MassPike, but also Soldiers Field Road and the Worcester railroad line.   Over 200,000 commuters use these routes every day. The project team is just beginning to grapple with the challenge of how to stage construction so as to minimize the extent and duration of lane and track closures.  

Senate President Spilka and other Metrowest legislators and advocates expressed great concern about potential closures and emphasized that congestion on the MassPike and throughout Metrowest is already unacceptable. 

“There is no rush hour anymore” said one Framingham resident, observing that the MassPike is often congested all-day.  From her perspective, “MetroWest has been taking the hits for years.” A project team member noted that the round-the-clock congestion makes it even harder to find times that construction crews can work without disrupting traffic.

Many of my constituents in Belmont, Watertown, and Boston would say the same about the roads they use. Metrowest and inner core commuters are demanding the same things — public transportation that works and an expansion of public transportation that works to reduce congestion.

The most promising approach to expanding regional transportation capacity may be to provide more frequent service on our regional rail network.  More long distance commuters could use rail and more inner core commuters would have the option of using rail instead of transit.  

Another concept that offers benefits for both long distance and inner core commuters is connecting Allston directly to Cambridge using the “Grand Junction” rail link that is currently only used for shifting trains between commuter lines.

But even rail improvements raise issues.  One Framingham resident complained about the local congestion caused by the downtown grade-crossing on the Worcester line, saying “We have gridlock in downtown Framingham.” Others raised the lack of parking for commuters.  

One respect in which the interests of inner core and Metrowest commuters may conflict is that more inner core stations on the Worcester line mean longer trips for people coming from further out.  We have added two stops recently — Yawkey in Fenway and Boston Landing in Brighton. I am a strong advocate for the proposed West station to better serve Allston, but one Metrowest legislator expressed strong opposition to it, unless off-setting changes can be made to improve Worcester line express service.

A MassDOT team has been carefully studying what investments would be required to add more local and express service on each of our rail lines.  That study should be complete before the end of this year.

The challenge will then be how to fund those rail investments.  Senate President Spilka has already empaneled groups studying transportation and revenue.  She has the funding challenge as a top priority both from her leadership perspective and from her local perspective representing Metrowest.  This challenge is also a top priority for me.

Representing Metrowest, the Senate President is especially conscious of the unfairness of our current transportation financing structure which tolls commuters from the west on the MassPike but does not toll other commuters. She has made clear that it will not be acceptable to fund the $1.2 billion Allston project on the “already-loaded backs of the toll-payers.”

As a frequent Red Line rider I am constantly aware that many commuters have more immediate concerns:  The unacceptable Red Line crowding and unreliability due to the signal damage caused by the recent derailment.  That accident was a terrible blow both for MBTA management and for MBTA users. The recovery has been painfully slow, but my communications with MBTA management give me faith that they will recover and return to a path of service improvement on the Red Line.

I will continue to keep both short-run and long-run transportation improvement front and center in my legislative efforts.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

34 replies on “Regional Congestion”

  1. Hi Will, thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    These are challenges for us to overcome and we must share resources as much as possible. But I don’t agree on the following feedback from a politician on West Station:
    “one Metrowest legislator expressed strong opposition to it, unless off-setting changes can be made to improve Worcester line express service.” That is exactly the same kind of mentality that got us here.
    Adding one more station might only cost pass through commuters several minutes and that can easily compensated by adding elevated platforms at commuter rail stations. That should cut the time of loading and unloading passengers, at the same avoiding personal injuries and making commuter rails more friendly to seniors and juniors.

  2. I am … underimpressed … by complaints about the burden of tolls on the Pike, and about its constant congestion. I am not a regular user, but I do occasionally use the inbound Pike and outbound I-93 (north and south) during morning rush hour, and the outbound Pike during afternoon rush hour; ISTM that rush hour on the Pike is not nearly as bad as on untolled highways. I also use the inner Pike during off hours and find it relatively free-moving — maybe not at rural highway speeds but well above speed limits (not just traffic speeds) on adjacent streets. I’d like to see real-time precise measurements to determine whose anecdotes are more correct. I do think that the DOT will need to be sure that commuter rail and the Green line can be fully operational throughout construction, as I understand they weren’t during the rebuild of the CommAve viaduct. I also wonder whether equipment upgrades on the T need to be sped up; my impression from watching trains beside the Pike is that they take much longer to get up to speed than (e.g.) the trains I rode in London 20 years ago. Added stops have less impact on the schedule if the trains accelerate at something better than a snail’s pace.

    1. Charles, I can understand your statement but unless we can agreement that all modes of transportation must be improved we will probably continue with gridlock for all of us. We need better public transportation and we need better and faster roadways. If we champion one over the other there will be pushback and we all lose.

  3. A more comprehensive rapid transit system is clearly needed – expanding the current commuter rail with small spider branched that feed into the main lines for example like utilizing the old Hudson line off the Fitchberg line using smaller trains. Expanding the Red line out to 128 by taking back the minuteman bike trail providing similar service like the green line. Expanding city subways lines to four track instead of 2. I know people will not like the idea of trains instead of bike trails but rapid transit will relieve congestion. We can add more parking in Lexington at the site of the old dump, in Weston in one of the quarries (putting a rail station right off rt 20 & 128 ) . I am sure there are many other rail opportunities as well that should be considered.
    Individual vehicle traffic is no longer practical – I used to have to travel through Boston (I-95) and it would take me over three hours to get from Wilmington to Quincy.

    Lastly we need to connect North Station with South Station and this has to be at ground level (since there is no space below ground) .

  4. I live in Watertown and drive to the West Newton commuter rail stop most of the time (because I got frustrated with having to drive through very congested Watertown Square to get to the Express Bus lot as well as the the additional delay while the bus crawls along Galen Street to get to/from the Pike and through the financial district – but that’s a topic for another day). One big downside of being an “inner core” commuter on the Framingham Line is that almost every other train is a Worcester train so we have to wait twice as long between trains. Inbound options in the morning from West Newton are 7:09, 7:45, 8:19, 9:15 and 10:01. Not often enough in my opinion for a commuter route.

  5. Here’s hoping that people from all along the Worcester Line can agree on win-win projects to improve service for everyone. The Suburbs vs. the City is not a winning approach.

    For example, here’s a 5 year old story about the T reaching the 30% design milestone for a new CR station in Auburndale.

    Then 2 years ago, when the design was at 100%, the design was rejected

    It is nice there is a meeting about the project next week, but when is the thing finally going to be built? This really isn’t rocket science, and having two high-level platforms would be good for all Worcester Line riders. Let’s go!

  6. Thanks for the updates Will.
    I am struck by the 100 acres of potential development that Harvard owns. It seems they have a lot to benefit in this situation.
    I wonder what they paid for that land.

    1. Harvard has made a substantial investment in the land and in cleaning up the hazardous waste on the land. However, given what they stand to gain, the question of the appropriate level of contribution from them to the project remains open.

      1. Truly affordable housing, and lots of it, right next to a new major transportation hub would be a nice piece of Harvard’s puzzle for that land?

      2. Many transit expansions around the world are financed through value capture from new development. The developers of this new land should absolutely have to help pay for the Allston project, as it will be directly contributing the value of that land.

  7. The debate between express and local service is really only occurring because we are running an antiquated system of diesel trains that take a long time to stop and start at stations and a long time for passengers to board and de-board.

    Having as many trains as possible stop at inner core stations is a good thing. It adds more connectivity and allows frequent service to job centers just outside of downtown Boston, which are quickly growing.

    What we really need is to convey our system to Regional Rail: frequent electric trains that have much faster acceleration and deceleration, and automated doors (ideally with level boarding) so that adding more stops has little impact on travel time.

    In the meantime, during Mass Pike Viaduct construction, I would urge MassDOT to keep two tracks running at all times. I would also urge the conversion of a travel lane into a bus/HOV lanes from 128 to downtown Boston immediately in both directions. This would do much to make efficient use of our limited road space. Taking the train or the bus should be the most appealing option, not the least!

    1. I agree completely with a push for better regional rail service. In particular, with the Alewife garage deteriorating rapidly, I would like to see a new commuter rail stop built at Alewife to provide better access options to that area for suburban commuters.

  8. Two comments: Yawkey is the name of a station now? Please refer to obit. of Pumpsie Green or look up Tom Yawkey in Wikipedia.
    I can’t believe the Mass Pike – Harvard land deal. Someone should publicize this and ask what are we getting in return.

    1. Fair question as to what we are getting in return. That conversation with Harvard will continue. They have put a lot of money in already, but many of us feel that their ultimate contribution will need to be larger.

      1. I would like to add that Harvard has already taken over most of Allston and is currently building on Western Ave and N Harvard Street; it terrifies me how much they own and control and so far no new buildings are affordable housing.

  9. More frequent service on the commuter rail lines (especially the Fitchburg line) is a no brainer; the T should get some Buddliners or whatever they’re called now – single self propelled diesel cars – that could run from the closer in stations every half hour or so. That way the trains from further out – Worcester, Fitchburg, etc. – could skip a few of those stations and provide faster service for all. I board at Waverley and the train is usually full by that point so I think this could be a win-win for everyone.
    The ideal solution would be to electrify the lines and run streetcar/subway type equipment along the lines of San Francisco’s BART system which does a good job of serving the outer suburbs and the inner city simultaneously. I realize that would be expensive, but should be investigated as a long term solution.

    1. Yes! This is very much the model I am pushing for. Both the close in “urban” service and the electrification.

      Adding more urban service is not quite a ‘no brainer’ because we have only two tracks, so that express trains overtake the “Buddliners” and they can interfere with each other. That is the modeling that MassDOT is working through. It’s actually somewhat complicated. Do we need to add a third or fourth track in some places, etc. . . .

      Really hoping to make it work!!!

  10. I own a business in Waltham. I had an employee who commuted from Boston to Waltham by bus and rapid transit. It was ridiculously slow to get to Waltham by bus because the most frequent bus the 70 bus in all of its A-C routes goes from Central Square. The route it highly congested, with many lights especially in Cambridge, Boston and Watertown. It has bothered me that the T management has not really added or modified routes for buses since before the red line extension to Alwife. It seems to me that, the Waverly bus or the Watertown Square bus should be extended out further to Waltham. Adding length and buses to the trackless trolley lines would likely improve commuting times from Waltham and service frequency. It also would be environmental and cost efficient because trackless trolley buses last longer than the fossil fuel ones ,carry more people and use electricity from the wires rather than fossil fuel.

  11. In many respects, these are good problems to have. Boston is growing, businesses are expanding, and people continue to move into the area. Funding public transportation is expensive and up until now, those who use it and put up with the inconvenience are footing the expense while those who drive automobiles are largely getting a free ride except for those commuting by the Mass Pike. Given that cars are a significant factor in the climate crisis, it appears that the Commonwealth has a vested interest in discouraging automobile while simultaneously expanding public transportation. Many large cities levy rush hour pricing during morning and evening commute times. Special rush hour tolls could be installed on all major routes into the city whose revenue could then be allocated to building a more robust public transportation network.

    1. Yes, Boston is growing but mind set is lagging behind. So many talents left Boston for other more open minded economic centers already. I personally knew several promising start up migrated to other states. Not to mention Facebook.

  12. We need a lot of additional infrastructure and more buses and trains, and T subway cars. This costs money. We need to talk seriously about revenues.

    1. Get rid of Union monopoly in Public project, you will suddenly find enough money for these projects.
      Remember the big dig and long fellow bridge renovation?

  13. Will,
    Several comments, in no particular order.

    Encore’s agreeing to fund transportation improvements around its Everett casino sets a possible precedent, both good and bad. Given our stressed infrastructure, it makes sense to hit up those would develop in congested areas for the cost of some necessary improvements. However, I’m concerned that it gives developers too big a say in what gets improved and what doesn’t. It may follow that unless you don’t have a developer wanting to build in your area, you don’t get improvements. It should be public dollars, not private ones, that fund basic, necessary services. That way, the debate over where to spend money is public, not private.

    Having worked outside 495, there is justifiable resentment across much of the state at the disproportionate share of resources that go to the Boston area. It’s part of the reason that lots of people, years ago, voted to repeal the gas tax increase; they perceived that it wouldn’t benefit them.

    It’s time to start tolling other main roads besides the Mass. Pike: Routes 93, 495, 2, 3, 128, and 91. We no longer require large toll plazas that consume land, require labor to staff, and slow traffic, only overhead gantries. What’s good for 90 is good elsewhere. It’s fair; users pay.

    Re the viaduct replacement, the “throat”, where a narrow strip of land inbetween the Charles River and Boston University must accommodate 2 rail lines, the Mass. Pike, Storrow Drive, and a pedestrian path along the Charles, has anyone considered merging the Mass. Pike and Storrow Drive for at least a portion of that? I have no idea whether that’s feasible, only that 2 major roadways and 2 rail lines are too much there.

    Again, the overemphasis on developing Boston, led by market demand, is often detrimental to the rest of the state, is starting to show diminishing returns as the public costs of more and more development take an increasing share of the public benefits, and either completely ignores our changing climate and rising sea levels or ensures that building in climate resiliency for new construction actually comes at the expense of older buildings left worse off.

    Re that last issue, building while ignoring climate change, the North Point development in East Cambridge is built on tidal land, the roughly 4000 units of housing that have been built within 1 mile of the Alewife T station are in or near the Alewife floodplain, and Don Chiofaro’s newest waterfront proposal (the one that involves bribing the adjacent New England Aquarium) is merely the latest in a long list of projects on the Boston waterfront that are built too near the water, not high enough above the water, and that effectively privatize the waterfront, leaving only a token degree of public access.

    You can’t fix a transit system which is already overburdened by placing more burden on it, and that is exactly what Massachusetts’ transit and housing policies are not only allowing, but facilitating.

    In particular, Gov. Baker’s proposal to change state law, to eliminate the requirement for two-thirds supermajority votes to change local zoning, may make it easier for developers to build too much, too tall, and too dense, under the false facades of “smart growth”, or “transit-oriented development”, but will further overburden an inadequate transit system (and additionally overburden school systems whose buildings are bursting with too many students, and additionally raise the cost of housing as more modest places are replaced with high-end, top-of-the-market new units).

  14. Not sure how increase frequency of service on commuter rail can be done. The only difference between late 1800’s and today is the railroad used kerosene lanterns and coal. Today it is flashlights and Diesel. Need to rethink the “railroad” fits into the transit picture.

    1. Actually there’s a huge difference: we now have the tech to have each train define its own exclusion zone, instead of dividing track into blocks and requiring that trains keep at least one clear block between them. But even without this there’s plenty of room for more trains; 22 years ago, before the moving-block tech existed, I was on a London commuter-rail train that ran at least every 15 minutes.

      1. But the frequency has not improved, even though we have newer tech. In the earlier days they had more boots on the ground holding red kerosene lamps directing trains and more trains on tracks.

  15. I suggest that commuter rail trains be split around Rt 128. The front half runs express to North Station, with possibly a single stop along the way. The rest of the train can then run to existing and potential additional stops within 128 without delaying the exurb-to-inner-core commuters, and it would also give them access to more stops along the route. When the “local” train section reaches North Station, it turns around and hits the same local stops, leaving the “express” part waiting at North Station. The extra local stops give more options for inner-core residents or North-Station-transfers to get to near suburb locations. After an appropriate delay, the express section heads out to meet the local train near Rt 128, and connects for the rest of the route outbound. This actually reduces the commute time for express travelers, while giving more options for users. How hard could that be?

    What I’d really like is to pave over the commuter rails lines and run Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). You could run routes more often, which solves a current problem: if you get delayed, say dropping off your kid, by even a few minutes, you’d need to wait an hour for the next train. Or worse, going the other way, if you miss your train and have to wait an hour, you can’t pick up your kid from daycare on time. With BRT, you can fill up buses (could be multi-segment buses like Silver Line or even longer) and run them every 10 or 15 minutes. If you miss your bus, no problem, another is coming soon.

    Commuter Rail lines have congestion-free access to Boston, but stand at any point along the way (that’s not a station) and it is in use for what, like a minute each hour?

    BRT would also improve the safety of at-grade crossings, and could use those crossing as jump-on and jump-off points. Instead of needing to go to an suburban station and finding all 10 parking spaces are taken so you can’t ride, the bus could roam around a little before getting on the limited access portion. There are more riders as you get closer to Boston, so you can add in buses to the limited access portion, increasing frequency and capacity, as needed, and you can skip stops on certain routes since those stations will be serviced by other buses. Then when getting near Boston, instead of forcing everyone to North Station for a long transfer process, some of the buses could get off at an at-grade crossing and take people closer to where they want to be.
    Finally (so this list of benefits doesn’t get too long), BRT can run later into the evening, even having a clean-up midnight bus, since you don’t need to fill up a whole train to make the trip worthwhile.

    Without better regional transit, both inbound and outbound, we are not going to solve our affordable housing crisis. What if Woburn grew into a sustainably planned, mid-density, walkable/bikeable, mixed-use area near the Transportation Center with express access to and from the inner core. It only takes 15 minutes from Woburn to Boston at night when there’s no traffic. We could do the same for Waltham. These are two cities that are not against commercial development and have rail and highway access, and the express access might convince tech businesses to set up shop there, with reasonable inner core access, but much lower costs.

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