What comes first, the bus or the bus lane?
As Boston prepares for a major redesign of dreary Sullivan Square and nearby Rutherford Avenue, an up-to-10-lane pseudohighway that rips through Charlestown, city officials are being pressed to reserve a lane just for buses to enjoy a traffic-free commute from Everett to downtown Boston.
On a map, the absence of a bus lane on Rutherford Avenue would create a conspicuous gap between ones at Sullivan Square Station, just to the north, and one planned at its southern end on the North Washington Street bridge into downtown Boston.
There’s just one problem: There aren’t any Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority bus routes running on the road today.
“They don’t go down Rutherford Ave.,” said Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets. “There is no bus service that goes from Everett to downtown Boston.”
Dedicated bus lanes are a popular solution right now to Greater Boston’s epic traffic problems, as they are a somewhat easy and low-cost fix that can move large numbers of commuters while reducing congestion by making transit more attractive than driving. In just the last year, bus-only lanes were installed on a cross-town route in Somerville, along Brighton Avenue in Boston, and on Massachusetts Avenue in Arlington, among others.
But the Rutherford Avenue project presents a modern version of the age-old problem: if you build, will they come?
This kind of chicken-and-egg dilemma has hampered other transportation initiatives in Boston. In Allston, for example, the state transportation department recently publicized plans for a rail station based on current commuter rail service levels, even though the MBTA had said it planned to run much more frequent service in the future.
On Rutherford Avenue, there has been at least some coordination between the city and the state on bus service. Boston has requested the T consider the road for a route as the transit agency reviews changes to its network of bus lines, and Osgood said the new Rutherford Avenue will be designed so that lanes could eventually be converted to bus-only space. Boston officials previewed a version of this road design at a public meeting in October, with images showing bus lanes in an underpass below a newly rebuilt Sullivan Square and on surface roads approaching the square.
The state has also already suggested adding Rutherford Avenue to a proposed extension of the Silver Line from Chelsea to North Station. But while MBTA spokeswoman Lisa Battiston said “it’s possible that the MBTA may operate buses on Rutherford Avenue in the future,” she added that there are no short-term plans.
The project is controversial for other reasons: some neighborhood activists in Charlestown remain furious at the city’s abrupt 2017 decision to keep the underpasses at Sullivan Square and Austin Street, reversing an earlier plan to build a surface-level road. While the project will eliminate some lanes from Rutherford Avenue, critics say it will still be too wide and that the hulking underpasses will cut down on the amount of space available for a planned park alongside the corridor — all to save commuters in cars a short amount of travel time.
With the city hoping to launch construction on the more than $150-million project by 2022, it may be that by the time it’s completed, the bus question will be settled.
But some advocates, especially Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria, believe it’s important for officials to commit to buses now, because they see Rutherford Avenue as a critical stretch in a future bus network.
“This is big for the North Shore, if you can run reliable bus service,” DeMaria said. “Rutherford Avenue is key.”
DeMaria envisions a route that travels from Glendale Square in Everett to Haymarket Station in Boston, and perhaps beyond. With dedicated bus lanes the whole way, transit riders would never have to mingle with car traffic.
The Orange Line already roughly parallels Rutherford Avenue, and buses from Everett could simply end their routes at the crowded station at Sullivan Square, as they do today. But DeMaria and other transit advocates want fast, high-frequency bus routes into Boston that don’t require such a transfer. That would be particularly valuable for Everett, he said, as it’s the only city that borders Boston without rail service.
DeMaria, whose city pioneered the proliferation of bus lanes in the region back in 2016, has proposed bringing the existing Everett bus lane on Broadway past the Encore Boston Harbor casino and all the way to the Boston border. The long-term goal is to run true “bus rapid transit,” with dedicated lanes in the street’s center lanes and covered stations with raised platforms that allow for frequent service with fast boarding.
Meanwhile, at Rutherford Avenue’s southern end, Boston’s ongoing rebuild of the North Washington Street Bridge will include an inbound lane just for buses, largely to aid riders of the popular 111 bus as it comes over the Tobin Bridge from Chelsea. The new bridge is expected to open in 2023.
Glaringly bus-barren Rutherford Avenue fills the 1.5-mile stretch between those two projects.
“There’s this strange, empty segment in between,” said Julia Wallerce, who lobbies for more bus lanes as the Boston lead for the international Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. “Not only with no bus priority, but with no buses at all.”