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Shirley Leung

A free bus to get around the Seaport? Beats a gondola

Information from MBTA and Seaport Transportation Management Association.
Information from MBTA and Seaport Transportation Management Association.Globe Staff

The Seaport District gondola dream is over, but another transportation fix is making the rounds: a (potentially free) bus service.

The proposal, from the Seaport Transportation Management Association, calls for a fleet of small buses that would circulate within the Seaport, making seven stops — including at South Station, the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, and the Innovation and Design Building.

The Seaport Circulator, as it has been dubbed, is “envisioned as a bus network that would knit together the South Boston Waterfront, providing frequent and reliable transit service to the places people are most often trying to get to,” according to the proposal obtained by the Globe.

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The service — free during an introductory period — would be operated privately. But unlike with the private shuttles that Seaport employers have for their employees, the public could hop on the circulator. The service is designed to supplement the MBTA’s Silver Line, which is the neighborhood’s primary transit mode but is jam-packed during rush hours. According to a recent survey of about 1,000 Seaport commuters conducted by the transportation association, 70 percent said crowding on the Silver Line deterred them from using it.

The association — a nonprofit funded by Seaport businesses to work on transportation issues — estimates the bus service would cost $800,000 annually to operate. It is seeking a grant from the state Department of Transportation to cover that cost during a three-year pilot program. The service could begin in May.

If the pilot succeeds, the association would explore ways to continue the service without state money, such as by tapping the coffers of Seaport businesses. Collectively, employers on the South Boston Waterfront already spend several million dollars a year to operate private shuttles that connect North Station, South Station, and suburban park-and-ride locations.

The state expects to decide in the next few months about this project, as well as on other applications for workforce transportation funding.

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The proposal has some high-profile backers. Letters of support have come from the City of Boston, the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, and Democratic state Representative Bill Straus of Mattapoisett.

“The innovative approach reflected in this application confronts the ever growing traffic congestion problems which limit the economic and residential potential of the Seaport District,” wrote Straus, who serves as House chair on the Joint Committee on Transportation.

Straus, in an interview, said he began meeting with Seaport leaders in the public and private sectors in August because he worried about the lack of immediate transportation solutions.

Unlike a gondola that developers had proposed, a bus service could be launched quickly. It’s also more flexible – the route and stops could change to better meet demand. The concept of a circulator bus route has been kicking around for years in various transportation reports, but has never progressed this far.

Straus said it took a little cajoling but credits the association for stepping up. “I pushed people as much as I pulled them in,” he said.

While Seaport employers already operate a private shuttle system during the morning and evening hours, Straus wanted something the public could use, too.

Turns out there is a public-private model to emulate. The new Seaport/North Station ferry is funded privately by employers and is for their employees, but the public can ride for a fee — $5 one way. (That’s a bargain compared with a $15 water taxi.)

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The transportation management association, in its bus proposal, reported that the ferry, launched in February, averaged more than 14,000 passengers per month in July and August.

The Seaport Circulator would consist of three buses, each with a minimum of 25 seats, operating from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. During rush hours, the buses would run about every 10 minutes.

The association would hire a private bus company to operate the service, while the association would handle management.

Whether the private employee shuttles would continue is a detail to be worked out.

While the association proposes to make the circulator free in the beginning, to encourage ridership, it might have to charge a fare of $1 or less to pay operating costs. Before committing to a fare, the association in its proposal said it would explore alternative funding strategies. But at $1, the circulator would still be half the price of an Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority bus fare.

The city is throwing its support behind the circulator — the idea shows up as a potential new transportation strategy in a South Boston transit study . Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets, wrote to state officials that the shuttle service could “reduce congestion on South Boston streets, improve options for South Boston residents, and encourage more people to use public transit.”

Osgood also noted that adding midday bus service could decrease the number of Uber and Lyft trips, a major cause of congestion in the neighborhood.

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The Seaport’s rapid development over the past decade has brought in thousands of workers and residents, and more are on the way. One state analysis projects that by 2025, the South Boston Waterfront will gain another 26,000 jobs, 12.3 million square feet of development, and 11,000 residents.

Despite the traffic, driving remains a popular way to get around the Seaport. According to a 2019 Seaport Transportation Management Association commuter survey, 27 percent drive alone to work. Of the people who drive alone, 42 percent listed “the time it takes to make the connection from North Station or South Station” as the primary reason they don’t use public transit.

I was never a fan of the $100 million, mile-long gondola system that Millennium Partners and Cargo Ventures fancied building from South Station to the marine industrial park. Thankfully, the developers ditched the idea over the summer.

I have been a proponent of reviving rail into the Seaport via Track 61. It could carry passengers from the Back Bay, with stops along the South Boston Waterfront.

While the project was put on a fast track under Governor Deval Patrick, it has been on ice under the current governor, Charlie Baker.

Which leads us back to the bus. It’s boring and basic, but I have confidence it will get the job done.

“I’d be very disappointed if MassDOT says no,” Straus said of the proposal.

So would I. A circulator, by itself, won’t solve the Seaport’s snarls, but it can become the catalyst to get more people out of cars, especially if it is free.

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