Business & Tech

shirley leung

5 things we can do to fix Seaport District traffic

South Boston Bypass Road was first created in 1993 as a commercial highway during the Big Dig construction, and it has remained closed to non-commercial traffic since.
PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF/FILE
South Boston Bypass Road was first created in 1993 as a commercial highway during the Big Dig construction, and it has remained closed to non-commercial traffic since.

Five years ago, I wrote a column about how the Seaport District may choke on its own traffic if we didn’t do something about it.

And that was before General Electric, Amazon, and a bunch of other companies decided to set up shop in the South Boston Waterfront.

Back then, we were already complaining about the bumper-to-bumper traffic along the main spine of Seaport Boulevard during rush hour. Now, other main arteries such as A Street get clogged as well, and the Silver Line continues to struggle to handle the evening commute.

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What have city and state officials been doing about any of this? Well, this being Boston, we have studied the matter, and we’re going to study it again.

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I don’t want to leave the impression officials, employers, and developers have been sitting on their hands. There has been a lot of activity behind the scenes and some real progress. Highlights include: consolidation of private shuttles, more regular bus service, and the impending launch of ferry service between North Station and Fan Pier.

But is this enough?

I’ve spent the past week talking to transportation advocates, city and state officials, and those in the private sector about what more can be done to battle Seaport gridlock. Here are five fixes to consider now:

1. Experiment with bus-only lanes on Summer Street. When a 2016 transit study espoused the virtues of bus-only lanes in Everett, that was enough for Mayor Carlo DeMaria to get on board. “Put up the cones,” he told his transportation planner, Jay Monty. A month later, orange cones were out on a section of Broadway, where only buses could travel between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m.

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The benefits were immediate: a 30 percent reduction in travel time. Last September the bus-only lane was made permanent with paint, and Everett has been hailed as a model for bus rapid transit in the region.

The city of Boston launched a monthlong pilot on Washington Street in Roslindale this week. But what about the Seaport District? I have a feeling we will have to wait as the city launches another transportation study this summer. Perhaps DeMaria could lend Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh a few of his traffic cones.

Let the Silver Line use this ramp to access the Ted Williams Tunnel, instead of taking a roundabout route to get to that road.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff
Let the Silver Line use this ramp to access the Ted Williams Tunnel, instead of taking a roundabout route to get to that road.

2. Free the South Boston Bypass Road and Silver Line ramp. In the name of journalism, I once drove down the 1.1-mile restricted South Boston Bypass Road to the Southeast Expressway, avoiding a packed stretch of Interstate 93 just south of downtown. It took less than three minutes. It was magical.

The state road is authorized for commercial trucks that ferry goods in and out of the working port. Since my 2013 trip down the Forbidden Road, the state opened it up to general traffic for six months to see what would happen. The answer: Commuters and truckers could both use the road without getting in each other’s way.

So what’s the holdup?

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“It’s a question of getting everyone to the table,” said Tom Glynn, who as the head of the Massachusetts Port Authority has been involved in fixing the Seaport’s transportation bottlenecks.

The other restricted route is a ramp down into the Ted Williams Tunnel that provides a much quicker access than the one used by Silver Line buses to get to Logan Airport. The state says the ramp was constructed for public safety and highway maintenance vehicles.

The good news is that state transportation officials are looking into opening up the ramp to give Silver Line buses faster access to I-90. The holdup: assessing whether the 60-foot-long buses can use the ramp safely.

Here’s an idea, and it doesn’t cost a dime: Let Silver Line buses use the ramp for a month during rush hour and see what happens. The buses were allowed onto the ramp in 2006 after other exits were closed after a piece of the Williams Tunnel ceiling fell and killed a woman traveling in a car below it.

3. Create a business improvement district in the South Boston Waterfront. Developers and landowners will probably howl at this idea because they already pay enough in property taxes, but the creation of business improvement district, or BID, not only can provide focus, but also the ability to generate revenue for ambitious projects that benefit the entire district.

Otherwise we might end up with pet projects like the $100 million aerial gondola between South Station and the marine industrial park that might only help one development.

We have two local BIDs – one in Downtown Crossing and one made up of abutters to the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. Property owners in those districts have opted to pay higher taxes to spruce up those neighborhoods.

Last year the Downtown Boston BID generated about $6.2 million in revenue collected from about 350 property owners.

“I am a huge proponent of BIDs. They are all created for different reasons, but whenever they are, they make a BIG impact,” Rosemarie Sansone, president of the Downtown Boston BID, wrote in an e-mail to me. “They cannot do everything and cannot solve social problems. But what they do best is communicate and bring people together to create a collective voice.”

4. Battle for the curb. Anyone who has taken an Uber or Lyft, you probably are guilty of this: getting picked up or dropped off in the middle of a busy street instead of at the curb. Then the cars behind you have to wait, and before you know it you’re the source of a traffic jam. Now let’s multiply that by 100,000. That’s close to the average number of ride-hailing trips that take place in Boston daily.

City officials are working with ride-hailing companies and developers to designate areas for pickup or drop-off akin to loading zones rather than the current free-for-all system. The city tried this successfully during the Boston Marathon, and it’s something done at Logan Airport and the South Boston convention center to reduce congestion and confusion.

We ride-hailing customers can also do our part. Insist on pickups or drop-offs at the curb.

5. Don’t forget to bike or walk. This one is also on us. The city has started to build protected bike lanes along Seaport Boulevard and Summer Street, and they should be done by the end of the year. Over the winter, the city, state, and the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority put up more than 70 pedestrian wayfinding signs, complete with their own hashtag, #WalkSBW. Visitors might not realize how close they are to the waterfront, but locals also needed to be reminded that the Seaport can be walked even if it doesn’t yet have the human scale of the Back Bay.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at sleung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.