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CHESTO MEANS BUSINESS

Seaport traffic is back. So are ideas for new ways to get there.

As ferry service relaunches for spring, city is wrapping up a new Seaport transportation study with a variety of well-trod concepts.

The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority shuttles commuters between Lovejoy Wharf and Fan Pier (above), funded by a partnership with several major Seaport employers and landlords. It's a step to ease traffic woes in the neighborhood.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

You know we’re returning to some kind of normal now that we’re debating the Seaport’s transit woes again.

As many employers bring workers back after two years away, the Boston Planning & Development Agency and the city’s transportation department are wrapping up a Seaport transportation study they started in 2019. Coincidence? Maybe. But there’s no better time than now to figure out how best to move tens of thousands of people in and out of the transit-starved business district, surrounded on three sides by water, as development continues unabated.

One hopeful sign: the ferry between North Station and the Seaport resumed its pre-pandemic schedule on Monday, with 20-minute headways, thanks to the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. The agency shuttles commuters, not conventioneers, between Lovejoy Wharf and Fan Pier, funded by a partnership with several major Seaport employers and landlords. The MCCA also runs a new cross-harbor ferry between Fan Pier and East Boston, as part of a pilot program scheduled to go through the end of the year.

These boats will make a dent, but not a huge one. On a busy pre-pandemic day, about 800 people took the Lovejoy Wharf ferry. That’s a fraction of the 44,000 people who worked in the Seaport in 2018, let alone the 89,000 expected to work there once the area is fully developed and the lab projects planned for the Ray Flynn industrial park are up and running. By contrast, 52,000 people work in the Back Bay, which has its own major train station. (Notably, the city’s numbers are based on pre-2020 routines.)

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Meanwhile, the Seaport has the Silver Line, which was pushed to the limit before the pandemic; commuters jammed themselves into its underground buses alongside airport travelers and their luggage. Long lines form for the 7 bus, which moves folks between the residential South Boston neighborhood and downtown. And the roads in and out of the Seaport don’t have much room for additional drivers, at least not at rush hour. Yes, South Station is just over Fort Point Channel, but it’s a hike from much of the Seaport.

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While office routines may forever be changed, something clearly needs to be done. But what? The city’s report offers a glimpse of priorities and next steps — though no price tags or definitive timelines.

Ferries: With Lovejoy Wharf service in full swing, the MCCA can shift its attention to Pier 10, on Drydock Avenue on the far eastern edge of the Seaport. That’s where the authority would add a new ferry stop, to bring boats to the doorsteps of big employers such as Reebok, Hill Holliday, and MullenLowe. MCCA transportation director Shannon McDermott says it shouldn’t cost much more than $1 million to build a landing area. Meanwhile, city officials are weighing possible stops at Fan Pier for ferries from the North and South shores — and a Charlestown route, too.

The ferry on its way to Fan Pier in the Seaport. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

New buses: Also on Drydock Avenue, a project by restaurateur-turned-developer Jon Cronin is expected to subsidize a bus connecting the industrial park with Nubian Square, to create the one-seat, Roxbury-Seaport ride once envisioned for the Silver Line. Among other things, this bus would travel all the way down D Street from West Broadway to the Seaport, going against regular traffic on a one-way stretch of D. Also, a privately run “Seaport Circulator” to move people around within the district is still under discussion.

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Bus rapid transit: City officials have not given up on the idea of giving buses their own lanes on Summer Street, with a test run possible this fall, but it hasn’t been easy. Critics say it would worsen traffic on the four-lane stretch. One big problem raised by the MCCA, whose giant convention center faces Summer: The 7 doesn’t serve out-of-towners who drive that street, so expanded bus service might not take many cars off that road. Maybe City Hall will face less controversy with a bus priority corridor along Congress Street, between North and South stations.

Old Northern Avenue Bridge: The city unveiled plans in spring 2020 for a fancy replacement bridge across Fort Point Channel that would include a lane for buses and emergency vehicles, after years of debate. But that compromise plan, released two mayors ago, might not be the final word. Some business leaders such as Rick Dimino at A Better City continue to argue the rebuilt bridge should have room for buses, while the Fort Point Neighborhood Association and several transit and pedestrian advocacy groups want the span to be limited to walkers and cyclists.

Track 61: It’s a transit dream that will never die and a vestige from an era when freight railroads ruled the waterfront. Track 61, much of it in a trench that runs below street level through residential South Boston, continues to tempt city planners. Forget about connecting Back Bay and the convention center, though. City officials instead remain keen on a possible spur from the Fairmount commuter rail line, serving urban Boston, and/or from the Old Colony commuter line to the South Shore. The Omni hotel overlooking the track was apparently built with space for a station. It’s a single-track route, so some siding would be needed for trains to pass each other. As always, the odds for Track 61 improve significantly if state officials decide to buy self-propelled trains that are more nimble than the diesel-powered dinosaurs in circulation today.

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Gondolas: The Track 61 dream lives on but not the aerial tram project once envisioned for Summer Street, between South Station and the Ray Flynn industrial park. A few years ago, an affiliate of Millennium Partners floated a gondola as part of a tech complex envisioned on the park’s edge. Those plans were downscaled significantly, and any hopes of a gondola went away. City officials lumped this one in with a proposed Red Line spur or a more outlandish monorail idea — considered and then discarded.

Cross-harbor rail link: The most ambitious proposal to survive the BPDA’s vetting? It might be more expensive than a gondola, monorail, and Red Line spur combined. We’re talking about a new harbor tunnel that would reroute some trains north of Boston toward South Station, with a new stop at Logan and another along the Fort Point Channel. Finally, a one-seat ride for North Shore commuters into the Seaport. But the financing and logistical hurdles are daunting, to say the least.

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For now, don’t hold your breath waiting for that new harbor tunnel. Instead, do it the next time you hop on a crowded Silver Line bus, to squeeze in with all those airport-bound travelers and their heavy bags.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.