Let’s call this the showdown on Summer Street.
On one side is the City of Boston, which is resurrecting a plan to create dedicated bus-and-truck lanes on one of the busiest arteries of the South Boston waterfront. On the other are the quasi-state agencies, the Massachusetts Port Authority and the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, which say the lanes would increase congestion and make streets less safe.
If you’re wondering about South Boston’s elected officials, they’ve weighed in, too. “We remain concerned that the proposed Pilot, if undertaken without proper due diligence, would be potentially catastrophic ....” wrote US Representative Stephen Lynch, City Council president Ed Flynn, City Councilor Michael Flaherty, state Senator Nick Collins, and state Representative David Biele in an April letter to state Transportation Secretary Gina Fiandaca.
The brouhaha is over a six-month pilot the city plans to launch this summer that covers a mile-long stretch from South Station to the former Edison Power Plant. If this all sounds familiar, it is.
As the Seaport District gets built out, its already heavy traffic is expected to worsen. Anticipating that scenario, the Walsh administration years ago began laying out plans to alleviate congestion. Chief among the priorities: the creation of a high-frequency transit corridor by giving buses and trucks their own lanes down the center of Summer Street.
Massport didn’t like the idea back then, and it still doesn’t today. The agency’s Conley Terminal is located just off Summer Street, and there’s concern freight trucks coming in and out of the working port might get backed up. One oft-cited statistic: Conley generates $8.2 billion in economic impact and supports 2,500 New England businesses. Key to its success: fast turnaround times with direct connections to highways via Summer Street.
“While we appreciate the addition of trucks to the bus lane, the plan does not resolve our safety and operational concerns,” Massport spokeswoman Jennifer Mehigan said in an e-mail.
For its pilot, the Wu administration plans to set aside the right lane for buses and trucks, while leaving the left lane for all other traffic. Summer Street runs two lanes in both directions, and the city will mark the dedicated lanes with paint. If the pilot is successful, the city would consider pursuing a permanent reconfiguring of the road by creating center-running bus/truck lanes.
Many of the stakeholders aren’t outright opposed to special lanes. They simply want a comprehensive traffic study before proceeding with the pilot, but since the city won’t do one, they’re appealing to the state to intervene.
South Boston pols are adamant about having a study done, given that a traffic consultant hired by the convention center authority and the Omni Boston Hotel delivered a grim analysis of the impacts of a dedicated bus/truck lane. The Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, the authority’s marquee meeting facility, and the massive Omni hotel across from it, both sit on Summer Street.
“The results were illuminating, and confirmed many of our concerns, showing that Summer Street would be in complete gridlock,” wrote David Gibbons, executive director of the convention center authority, in a May 17 letter to Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s chief of streets.
Gibbons is up in arms over how the city does not take into account “the unique dynamic created by the hospitality cluster of the BCEC.”
That’s a reference to convention-goers, as well as nearby hotels, all of which Gibbons says generate thousands of arrivals and departures by rideshares, private cars, bus, and other means.
“Our disparate flows of customers and workers are like no other,” Gibbons wrote. “The high trafficked days alluded to above are not outliers to be dismissed but are the norm in our neighborhood.”
In an interview, Franklin-Hodge said the city has been meeting with convention center staff to better understand their concerns and defended the city’s plan to move forward without the need for more data.
“Traffic studies can only tell you so much because they rely on a lot of assumptions that are sometimes a little bit limited in terms of what they can pick up,” Franklin-Hodge said.
He added that the Seaport has another 20 million square feet of development to be built out, and much of it will happen along Summer Street. The city’s push for a rapid bus corridor — one that eventually will connect riders from the Seaport through downtown to North Station — is part of a broader vision by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to improve its bus network.
Franklin-Hodge also contends a new design, along with extending protected bike lanes along Summer Street, will ultimately make the area safer for pedestrians and cyclists.
“The only way that we can continue to grow as a city is if we start to create these higher-quality transit connections,” Franklin-Hodge said. “This pilot by itself will not do that, but it sets the stage for a long-term vision that says that the Seaport will need better and more frequent transit, and this is part of how we’re going to be able to deliver that.”
Now, whether Boston can forge ahead without state approval remains to be seen. Franklin-Hodge said it’s “complicated” because the city gave up some rights during the construction of the Big Dig, but it’s his understanding that the city maintains control of the surface of Summer Street.
Which means the ball is in Fiandaca’s court. Some of you may remember she was the Boston transportation commissioner for Mayor Marty Walsh. She left his administration in the spring of 2019 and moved to Texas to oversee mobility for the City of Austin. She returned to Massachusetts this year after Governor Maura Healey appointed her transportation secretary.
Given her time at City Hall, Fiandaca must be attuned to the concerns of dedicated bus/truck lanes on Summer Street. She’s not saying whether she’s for or against the project.
Instead, Fiandaca through state transportation agency spokeswoman Jacquelyn Goddard, offered up this: “MassDOT and the MBTA are supportive of efforts to expand multi-modal services and other transit improvements. We look forward to further discussing this pilot with the city and interested stakeholders.”
Yep, Fiandaca is stuck in the middle, caught between the urgency of City Hall to fix Seaport traffic before it’s too late and heavy hitters worried whether the solution is no fix at all and that a pilot could easily become permanent.
There’s a path forward here — conduct a damn study, or design a pilot everyone can live with. What can’t happen — which too often does — is nothing. Then we all pay the price.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.