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Shirley Leung

The Seaport’s Silver Line solution

Is the Silver Line the silver lining to the Seaport District’s growing traffic woes?

The decade-old T line is the obvious answer because it’s the area’s main form of public transportation, a $600 million fancy bus service, or at the very least one with a fancy name. Ridership on the Silver Line waterfront route is growing, up about 10 percent over the past five years to an average of nearly 16,000 on weekdays.

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But as everyone knows by now, the best is yet to come for the South Boston Waterfront. Thousands of workers and new residents are about to pour into the district over the next few years as office towers and apartment buildings open and possibly an expanded convention center. Meanwhile, as more development takes hold, the sea of the cheapest parking in downtown Boston will go away, forcing more drivers to take public transit. That transit is, for the most part, the Silver Line.

So when the Silver Line gets overcrowded, the T can just put more buses on the line, right?

Well, no, actually.

That’s because Neoplan USA, the company that made the Silver Line vehicles, is out of business, and our 60-foot-long accordion buses are custom-made hybrid diesel-electric vehicles.

That leaves the MBTA with 32 precious Silver Line buses for the waterfront, and the aging fleet is overdue for a major tuneup. Starting next year, the agency will take a few buses at a time off the road for an “overhaul” that is likely to be imperceptible to most riders, such as installing new air conditioning and upgrading the propulsion system. The T says the project won’t disrupt service; we’ll see about that.

The soonest we’ll get new Silver Line buses is 2020, when the T expects to retire the current waterfront fleet, much of which went into service in December 2004. Officials are already meeting with manufacturers about the order because they would like a hybrid-electric version, and nobody currently makes a kind with enough power to haul the extra-long Silver Line buses.

The T assures me that the Silver Line will be fine, and it can handle nearly twice as many passengers as it does today.

It’s tough to imagine that anyone would ever doubt the good word of the T, and yet some do. An Urban Land Institute report last year warned that the Silver Line-Waterfront is congested, and that the T will in the near future need to buy more buses and run them every 60 seconds instead of every 2.5 minutes to accommodate growing demand.

Massport chief Tom Glynn, himself a former T manager back when the Silver Line was being conceived, is thinking about the impact of the closure of the Government Center T stop early next year, part of the same Blue Line that goes to Logan. He’s thinking about how the two-year renovation project is going to push more people onto the Silver Line to get to the airport.

Massport owns eight of the 32 Silver Line buses that go from South Station to the airport and spends an estimated $1.7 million annually to make inbound fares free for passengers. Glynn says he could use eight more buses, if the manufacturer were still around.

Now, Massport is considering launching a new direct bus service early next year, possibly from Haymarket, the Back Bay, or South Station. The agency would keep its Silver Line buses in the current rotation and add regular buses that would go over city streets. Fares have yet to be determined.

“We’re trying to be helpful,” said Glynn. “It’s another choice we’re looking at for our passengers.”

A couple of months ago, I had a chance to ride the Silver Line with T general manager Beverly Scott. The buses were clean and efficient, and by the end, they were packed. Dr. Scott, as everyone calls the former university professor, struck a theme of solving gridlock in an area many tech companies have moved into. “Let’s bring innovation to the Innovation District,” she said.

Different agencies, the city, and the state are showing they can do that, attacking the problem from different angles when we most need to. We don’t always need to wait for something fancy, when a few bright ideas will do.

* * *

In an earlier column, I urged PayPal Media Network executive David Chang to meet Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce CEO Paul Guzzi because the new techies in town should be mixing more with the downtown business types. The two not only caught up, but their organizations collaborated on a Boston Idea event this week.

Shirley Leung can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.
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