scorecardresearch Skip to main content

GE move puts Seaport gridlock back in spotlight

<?EM-dummyText [Drophead goes here] ?>

Silver Line passengers waited this week to board buses at South Station during rush hour.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

With General Electric Co. likely to move to Boston's booming Seaport District and a flood of new construction underway across the area, workers and businesses are hoping for quick improvements to routine gridlock and public transit woes.

Already, morning commuters navigate through slow-moving traffic on Summer Street or crowd into a small waiting area at South Station to pack onto Silver Line buses to take them to work. Whereas the Seaport — also known as the South Boston Waterfront — seemed deserted and full of parking lots merely five years ago, it's now teeming with new companies and thousands of workers.


By 2035, when the district's final 17 million square feet are developed, trips to and from the waterfront during peak hours are estimated to increase by 63 percent. But even now, growing pains are evident. One Silver Line route, which travels through South Station to the Seaport's Design Center, operates at 123 percent of its maximum capacity during the morning commute, according to a 2015 report. And companies have commissioned more than two dozen private shuttles to help employees get around.

"I think for the Seaport to be successful, public transit has to catch up with growth," said Julie Wormser, executive director of the Boston Harbor Association. Wormser has purchased Razor scooters for her staff so they can sometimes avoid public transportation. "There's no question."

Daniel McMahon of Jamaica Plain, who commutes to work at the Seaport via the Silver Line, is worried about the impact of more workers. "It barely has the capacity to run with the amount we have now," McMahon said this week, waiting for the bus at South Station. "People are always standing 10 deep, just elbow to elbow, and you have to hope you don't become late."

Liz White of West Newton said she's used to the crowds by now, and that her co-workers constantly talk about the need for more express buses. "The MBTA does the best they can, but there's just a big influx of people," she said.


Seaport congestion is already on the radar of state and city officials: In January last year, A Better City, a nonprofit backed by business and civic institutions, released a study with public agencies that outlined recommendations for improving transportation in the Seaport.

The recommendations included consolidating the private shuttles that circle the neighborhood during rush hour, improving the traffic signals for the Silver Line at D Street, installing more Hubway bicycle stations, buying 60 new Silver Line buses, and re-opening or rebuilding the Northern Avenue Bridge.

A year later, city and state officials have made some improvements: They installed new real-time information signs for Silver Line buses, and the traffic signals at D Street now prioritize buses. The city this week made clear it intends to rebuild the Northern Avenue Bridge, and the state is experimenting with HOV lanes and letting all cars onto the South Boston Bypass Road. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is also overhauling 32 Silver Line buses for $24.3 million.

With help from the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, some companies are close to signing onto consolidated routes for the private shuttles that were dispatched to help pick up the slack for the MBTA, providing connections from South Station and North Station.

Still, some big changes remain up in the air: Though the MBTA has purchased some new buses that can serve the Silver Line's above-ground stops, it does not yet have a plan to acquire the 60 new buses that A Better City recommended.


Joe Pesaturo, an MBTA spokesman, said the transportation authority is well positioned to meet some future demand in the Seaport, such as outbound commutes for new residents in the area or trips outside of peak hours.

"As far as new Silver Line vehicles [for South Boston tunnel routes] are concerned, the Authority will continue to explore new technologies, evaluate its options for the next fleet, and determine the best way to meet future demand," he wrote in an e-mail.

All of this debate comes as GE formally announced plans this month to relocate its headquarters — and about 800 employees — to the city, likely in the Seaport District. The neighborhood will ultimately also become home to hundreds of new apartments, stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues, particularly in the Seaport Square development.

Rick Dimino, executive director of A Better City, said city and state officials have worked hard to focus on near-term changes so far, but he said they know more needs to be done. Though improving the traffic signals on D Street has improved the reliability of the Silver Line, Dimino said the MBTA must still expand its capacity.

"We're not there yet in terms of being able to meet that transit share," he said.

Officials are also considering building a tunnel to allow buses to go underground around D Street to improve speed and reliability.


And many don't believe the solutions fall squarely on the Silver Line: The Boston Harbor Association's Wormser said officials should take more seriously proposals to increase ferry service traveling from North Station to the Seaport, which could relieve some traffic congestion.

She said private shuttles or more Uber rides may not be the answer, since they aren't accessible or affordable for everyone. Instead, she said, the government should be investing more in its transportation network.

"Can we have dedicated bike lanes? Can we have dedicated bus lanes? Can we have ferries?" she said. "That's going to better equalize the access to jobs."

The government has pledged some further improvements: With news of GE's move to Boston, city and state officials said they wanted to continue with plans that could use up to $100 million to rebuild the closed Northern Avenue Bridge, and use $25 million in already-approved funds to fix sidewalks, intersections, and other transportation challenges in the district.

General Electric's move to Boston will be far from the biggest influx of workers to the Seaport. But Lauren Grymek, executive director of the Seaport Transportation Management Association, said the news has helped keep the spotlight on transportation issues there.

"I think it was a good reminder that there's still work to be done, but also signifying that there are solutions and people still want to be in this area," she said.

Nicole Dungca can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.