What’s next for the Silver Line?
The expansion of the MBTA’s premier bus service into Chelsea, scheduled to begin carrying passengers on Saturday, marks a milestone both for the city and for the T. For Chelsea, the opening caps off years of advocacy and should create an easier commute for residents working around South Station. For the T, it shows the public that the oft-maligned transit agency can still get things done.
Now the right follow-up would be to improve the Silver Line experience for all passengers — not just on the new Chelsea branch, but also in Roxbury, the South End, the Seaport, and East Boston too.
The bus service, while a valuable part of the T’s network, still doesn’t live up to its billing as a “rapid bus transit” service analogous to a subway line. Except for the Silver Line tunnel from South Boston to the Seaport, and a portion of the new Chelsea branch, buses mix with regular traffic. The new service from Chelsea is expected to take around 25 minutes to travel just over three miles.
Strategies for improving the Silver Line have been bandied about for years: giving buses priority at traffic lights, smoothing out routes, and creating truly dedicated bus lanes so that buses can zip past car traffic.
Some specific fixes for the T and the cities it serves: Let Silver Line buses use the State Police ramp to get on the Mass. Turnpike in South Boston. Reduce delays at the D Street crossing in South Boston. On the Washington Street routes, use signal priority technology at intersections, which automatically senses when buses are coming and gives them a green light. Consider enforcing the existing bus lane in the South End; currently the markings on the pavement on Washington Street are more aspirational then actual.
None of those ideas are especially radical or expensive. And the political timing is right: Boston, along with many other cities, has grown increasingly attuned to the value of bus service. It requires cooperation between the T and municipalities to revamp signals or set aside bus lanes — and cities in Massachusetts are readier than ever to offer it.
Down the road, bigger projects could be considered too. The Patrick administration’s aborted effort to extend rapid-bus service down Blue Hill Avenue, now served by the languid 28 bus, deserves another look.
The completion of the new Silver Line branch shows how cities and the T can still upgrade service, despite the agency’s troubles. The T can take a bow — and then start planning the next chapter.