In Boston’s burgeoning Seaport, millions of square feet of development over the past decade have transformed a rundown industrial district into a booming office district. But the thousands of workers who commute to the Seaport know all too well the cost of that success: epic traffic jams.
The congestion is so bad that officials are worried it will discourage businesses from continuing to invest in the area. In response, several state agencies Wednesday announced the first in a series of road and transit improvements to ease bumper-to-bumper traffic, help pedestrians better navigate the district, and speed up buses.
The biggest change begins Monday, when officials will open up a long stretch of the South Boston Bypass Road to all cars as part of a six-month pilot program. The street, created in 1993 for truck traffic from the Big Dig construction project, has been open only to commercial vehicles.
Cars will now be allowed to drive on the portion of the bypass near the convention center at any time, and on the eastbound section from Interstate 93 to Richards Street during the 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. rush hour.
Officials will also allow all passenger cars to travel on the barely-used High Occupancy Vehicle ramp on the northbound side of I-93 near downtown Boston, which brings traffic directly to the Ted Williams Tunnel, removing some airport-bound traffic from local streets. The change will not affect the separate and much longer northbound HOV lane that begins in Quincy.
The idea of opening up the bypass road was first floated in January by the South Boston Waterfront Sustainable Transportation Committee, a coalition of public agencies spearheaded by the non-profit business group A Better City.
“There’s real frustration” among commuters, acknowledged Richard Dimino, chief executive of A Better City. “It’s not a panacea, but after the bypass road is opened, anybody who’s coming from the south during the morning peak should see a real, positive difference in their commute.”
The committee could make the changes permanent if traffic conditions improve — though that would require public hearings and state and city approvals.
Some workers in the neighborhood were skeptical the change would make much of a difference.
“What it’ll do is just bring more traffic in,” said Tammy Casserly, an executive at an advertising agency in the Seaport who commutes from Carlisle. She questioned why officials would not allow commuters to use the bypass road to leave during the evening rush hour.
“As all of these buildings have been built, the road infrastructure hasn’t changed,” she said. Driving from the suburbs “can take anywhere from an hour to two hours. That’s the bad part about this place. It’s so unpredictable.”
Casserly said she’s decided to rent an apartment in the Seaport to avoid the long drive, but acknowledged that many others could not afford to do the same.
Other drivers have already been using the bypass road, and fear that Wednesday’s announcement will clog it up.
“I take the bypass road — It’s a big, big shortcut but it still takes me a long time,” said Sabrina Morton, a 25-year-old hair stylist from Quincy. “It’ll be worse with it being open to the public.”
Morton said the constant traffic congestion is hurting business at the shop where she works, because workers and clients are frequently late.
Other changes announced Wednesday should help non-driving commuters.
Silver Line buses are running slightly faster after changes to traffic-light patterns were made in June, and the MBTA will install digital signs this fall at three stations alerting passengers to the next Silver Line bus.
Separately, officials are working to consolidate and streamline the private shuttle service provided by companies in the district to reduce the number of buses crowding the streets.
For bicyclists, improvements will include the addition of two Hubway bike stations this month: one near the Lawn on D Street and another outside the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion.
Pedestrians, meantime, will benefit from new signs that give directions to the convention center and restaurants in the area, plus freshly painted crosswalks and other improvements planned at major intersections.
Officials are also moving to streamline the collection of private bus shuttles that serve local companies, while Massport is building a new road for freight traffic that should remove trucks from the streets.
The effort to ease commutes in the neighborhood comes in response to its rapid growth. Between 2000 and 2013, developers constructed some 10 million square feet of new buildings on the South Boston Waterfront. The same period also saw the addition of 4,100 residents and 7,700 jobs in the neighborhood, according to the transportation committee.
The growth is expected to continue, with another 17 million square feet of development in the pipeline. That lends urgency to getting started on longer-term transportation projects, such as buying more Silver Line buses, Dimino said.
“This is going to be a long march — and hopefully the pace of improvements will keep up with the pace of growth,” he said. “If that doesn’t happen, businesses will move their investment elsewhere.”