The Encore casino has placed a multimillion-dollar bet to get people out of cars
The Orange Line has never looked so glamorous (or clean) as it does in the slick ads for Encore Boston Harbor. “Arrive relaxed,” reads the tagline. “Why drive?”
Those aren’t the words riders would choose to describe the MBTA these days, but the Everett casino is making a big bet that it can convince Bostonians to avoid coming by car. The advertising budget alone for its “no car” campaign is $1 million.
All told, however, Encore owner Wynn Resorts has spent tens of millions of dollars on alternate modes of transportation — including $4 million for a small fleet of “motor yachts.”
That’s on top of $70 million spent to upgrade roads around the casino.
“They have funded more transportation mitigation than any other private development in the history of Massachusetts,” said Eric Bourassa, director of transportation planning at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. (In case you’re wondering, the planning agency does not receive money from the casino.)
Jim Folk, Encore’s executive director of transportation, describes his role this way: “It’s like building your own transportation department.”
Casino honchos have good reason to get creative — and to brace for traffic Armageddon when Encore opens Sunday. Greater Boston’s notorious road congestion threatens to choke the $2.6 billion gambling palace’s success. The casino expects about 50,000 visitors during its busiest periods. One bright spot: Those tend to be nights and weekends, when commuters aren’t on the roads.
Still, convincing more people to take public transit can feel like a long shot, given that the casino lacks its own subway stop. To entice patrons to use the T, Encore is running a free bus shuttle, every 10 minutes, from the Wellington and Malden Center stops on the Orange Line.
Wynn Resorts had to double down on the Orange Line as part of the state environmental approval process for the resort casino. In 2015, Wynn became the first company to agree to help subsidize T operations — about $7.4 million over 15 years — which foots the bill for extra staff and service on nights and weekends.
Since then, other developers in the area have also agreed to underwrite the Orange Line. For example, Catamount Management, which is redeveloping the former Hood Milk plant in Charlestown, is offering about $830,000 over 15 years.
Encore will also try to make buses glamorous with a caravan of premium motor coaches that pick up gamblers from suburban locations, as well as New Hampshire. Only $7 one way!
On top of that, the casino is going to run free neighborhood shuttles, with select stops in Everett and Chelsea.
But if patrons truly want to arrive in style, they can board one of the casino’s four ferries. The 35-passenger vessels not only cost $1 million each, but they might make you feel like a million bucks with their plush white seating and Frank Sinatra songs piped through the speakers.
The custom boats will depart from Long Wharf and the Seaport’s World Trade Center nearly every half-hour, from early morning to nearly midnight — also only $7 each way.
Transportation planners will tell you what really discourages driving is the scarcity and expense of parking. Encore is checking that box, too. Onsite parking is limited to 2,900 patrons-only spaces; employees have to park elsewhere. Parking isn’t free, either: $22 for six hours, more if you use the valet.
But here’s the wild card that could trip up the best-laid plans: people who decide to travel by Uber or Lyft.
“I don’t think you can prevent that,” Folk acknowledged.
Ride-hailing services have become popular alternatives to public transit; they offer reliability and convenience at a decent price. But while attractive on an individual level, cumulatively they make a mess of the roads for all of us. Last year, there were 81.3 million ride-hailing trips in Massachusetts, a 25 percent increase from 2017, according to state figures.
Look at the havoc Uber and Lyft have caused at Logan Airport. Fed-up officials this fall will ban ride-hailing services from the terminals’ curbs for most of the day. (Most Uber and Lyft transactions will take place in a centralized location.)
Encore has built a ride-hailing lot across from the casino that will hold 100 cars, so at the very least Ubers and Lyfts won’t clog the streets of Everett and Boston while drivers circle for passengers. (And yes, patrons can be dropped off and picked up at the casino’s main entrance.)
“The real solution to this is much higher quality public transportation services. That’s how to compete with Uber and Lyft,” Fred Salvucci, a former state transportation secretary, tells me.
He’s right. Encore is doing its part to ease the congestion it creates, but now is the time for the region to start planning for bigger fixes.
Both Salvucci and the MAPC’s Bourassa were part of a multi-agency working group that spent two years studying the transportation needs in a five-square-mile area that covers parts of Everett, Charlestown, and Somerville. The big takeaway: Encore, which has created about 5,000 jobs, is just the beginning of development there. The group estimates as many 55,000 jobs could be generated over two decades.
The added growth — hold onto your poker chips and martini glass – could mean as many as 500,000 new daily trips of all varieties by 2040, a 34 percent increase over 2010, according to the study.
What might some of those bigger fixes be?
Things like increasing the frequency of Orange Line trains beyond what’s planned, extending the Silver Line into Everett and to Kendall Square in Cambridge, and building a footbridge across the Mystic River to connect the Assembly Square Station to the casino.
It’s not too early — in fact, it’s exactly the right time — to fully explore systemic solutions, given how long it takes to plan, pay for, and build infrastructure.
The upshot is that Encore will create more traffic headaches for all. But that’s not necessarily bad. We may find that the best part of having a casino in Boston’s backyard is that it may finally focus all of us on how awful traffic really is and what it will take to make getting around less of a roll of the dice.