PUBLIC MONEY FOR PRIVATE FACILITIES: Northern Avenue Bridge and Seaport Ferry

The surprising bottom line about the current debate over what to do with the non-functional Northern Avenue bridge is that, except for historical preservation, there is simply no reason to replace it at all. It might make sense to create an attractive space on top of the old bridge’s mid-channel foundation for push-cart vendors and hanging out. And it would make sense to connect that space to the shore with small (and relatively cheap) walking and bicycling paths -- as desired by the majority of the surrounding community (and the tourist industry). But a real transportation bridge -- whether just for buses, or adding corporate shuttles, Lyft/Uber and multi-passenger vehicles (called HOV3+), or even the throw-back demand to allow single-occupancy cars -- will cost between $80 and $100 million and (as shown by the city’s own data) do nothing to reduce the traffic congestion now clogging the Seaport's entry spots. These "full rebuild" proposals also contradict the city's Go Boston 2030 transportation plan.

Getting people from North Station -- and the rest of the downtown -- in and out of the Seaport is a transportation and economic development priority. Unfortunately, the city Task Force's preferred HOV3+ proposal -- like the current plan for a ferry connecting the suburbs-serving North Station to the Seaport -- seems to be providing significant public subsidies for a mostly reserved-for-private-business-use facility. The two projects have different histories. The private ferry emerged out of government inaction due to conservative aversion to public spending. The Northern Avenue bridge proposal feels more like a sweetheart giveaway to big corporations. But neither are the public investment in public transportation infrastructure that the region needs.

Fortunately, the Northern Avenue Bridge planning process seems stalemated between advocates for each of the three options. This creates an opportunity for Mayor Walsh to provide leadership and show that his visionary plans for a multi-modal, car-respecting but not car-dominated city that serves all residents are actually the guidelines his Administration intends to follow.

 

LIFTING EVERYONE; FLOATING FREE

Free-market zealots believe that social benefits can only be provided by profit-seeking enterprise, and the best government can do is stay out of the way. In Massachusetts, however, we have long understood that trickle-down seldom reaches ground level. Rather, we understand that lifting a building is best done by raising the foundation rather than pulling on the chimney. We understand that implementing policies for the general welfare creates an environment in which everyone prospers, including the business sector. Public schools. Public health in both the community and the workplace. Public safety-net programs. Public energy efficiency and climate protection. Public transportation. We have often led the way, even if we haven't always lived up to our ideals.

The ferry will be staffed by a private firm and use private investments because the state has been unwilling to raise enough revenue to let the MBTA pay for the massive increases in all types of transit service the area needs. Seaport developers and employers have stepped into the gap. Nonetheless, the project will require enormous cooperation, permissions, and subsidies from city and state government – and will be run by a public agency (the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority). The price of that essential public help must be that the ferry serves the general public. The original proposal was that use would be restricted to corporate employees and tenants for up to 3 years. Public outcry forced planners to reserve five seats on each trip for public use – but at a cost of $12 per ride. Now, after more pushback, the amount of public access and cost is being reviewed.

Eliminating some of the nearly 4,000 daily taxi and Uber/Lyft trips across the city into the Seaport is a public benefit. But we cannot afford to allow access to transportation infrastructure to be rationed by wealth. The city belongs to all of us. A sustainable ferry system is not about sight-seeing cruises across the Harbor (although people may also use it for that). To serve the general good, a regular ferry service ultimately needs to be accessible to all – including not only this initial North Station-Seaport route but also the numerous other boat-runs now being discussed to connect to downtown, to the new Casino, to various North and South Shore communities, and even to the East Boston wing of the Institute of Contemporary Art.

 

THE BRIDGE TO NOWHERE

Similarly, what happens at the end of Northern Avenue should be designed to help the city as a whole. The city's own data – which seems to repeatedly change and much of which has still not been made public -- indicates that there would be no congestion reduction for vehicles entering the seaport. Vehicles will turn into the area using the three existing bridges which all provide a shorter route.

The still-publicly-unreleased consultants’ data also suggests that letting cars use a rebuilt Northern Avenue Bridge will actually add to congestion on Atlantic Avenue. (A car bridge wouldn’t – couldn’t – do anything to change traffic flow in the rest of South Boston.) Even the HOV3+ version will not shave off more than a few seconds from outbound congestion on the nearby Moakley Bridge. The main gain would be shorter times for corporate shuttles and a huge but still unestimated number of Uber/Lyft vehicles – but unless those shuttles are open to the general public, this is simply an expensive subsidy for Seaport corporations.

And even these projected benefits only happen if it is assumed that the city has an effective way to keep Single Occupancy Vehicles (SOVs) from using the bridge – which city officials have admitted they don’t have. The benefits also assume that there is no significant improvement in transit or bus access into or out of the Seaport – implying that the city will fail its own 2014 Climate Action Plan and undercutting Mayor Walsh’s Climate Action Plan commitments. Go Boston 2030 also has target mode shift goals: 50% decrease in SOV, 400% increase in biking, 33% increase in public transit use. In addition, the city’s recently released Boston Planning and Development Agency “Seaport Strategic Transit Plan RFP” requires the consultant selected for that contract to consider underway or proposed projects including use of Track 61, Seaport to North Station Rapid Bus, and the South Station expansion.

In contrast, the consultants working on the Northern Avenue project see these potential transit improvements and assume both that the city will utterly fail to achieve its goals and that mode share will remain unchanged. In fact, the consultants’ report assumes a 1.8% annual increase in Single Occupancy Vehicle trips. Designing the bridge for current conditions is not only insulting to city leaders (and staffers!) but will help lock us into the problems they are trying to solve. Plans for Northern Avenue should help move us forward, not hold us back.

Finally, a vehicle-capable bridge also raises issue for the federal Moakley Courthouse. To deal with rising sea levels, a replacement bridge will have to be high, pushing the ramps at least 20 feet closer to the Courthouse – which will impact the building’s appearance, increase noise and pollution levels, and perhaps raise security issues as well if large vehicles are sitting in traffic in front of the site.

 

A BETTER WAY

Of course, something needs to be done. And the Walsh Administration has already identified what that should be. Currently, and shockingly, the notoriously slow – and therefor underused -- #4 bus is the only route running in this area, and the MBTA has recently decided to both move it away from Northern Avenue and have it only circulate within the Seaport. However, the City’s Go Boston 2030 transportation vision contains a bold commitment to implement an idea from the city’s previous South Boston Waterfront Sustainable Transportation Plan to run “direct [public] bus service…in exclusive bus lanes” from North Station and the South Boston waterfront in a loop on Congress and Pearl streets. (An alternative route would stay on Congress using a peak-time, bus-only, reverse flow lane on the short one-way section of Congress, eliminating parking on that block during commuting hours.)

Setting up the Congress Street express bus is estimated to cost about $21 million – compared with $80 to $100 million for any of the vehicle-carrying bridge options -- and could be in operation having a positive impact on Seaport congestion long before whatever is decided for the Northern Avenue bridge gets constructed.

In fact, a recent MassDOT document announced the commitment of $2.9 million towards expanding Silver Line service through the purchase of six additional buses, expanding peak service conditions to off-peak hours, and the implementation of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along Summer Street and Seaport Boulevard. Each of those mitigation efforts will have vast impacts on mobility choices and functionality in the Seaport. (Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s M.G.L., Chapter 30, Section 61 Finding for the Seaport Square development, signed by Highway Administrator Jonathan Gulliver on January 4, 2019) The large list of planned and potential transit projects would have immense impacts on mobility in the area and should be considered in any mobility analysis.

There is, in principal, nearly universal agreement that the only solution to the Seaport’s congestion is a massive increase in public transit options – connecting North and South Stations wouldn’t hurt either, although that is a long-term project. But, in the meantime, it makes little economic or financial sense to not push for better bus service as an impactful first step in the right direction. Best of all, it would be a public infrastructure investment that would benefit the entire public.

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Related previous postings:

> NORTHERN AVENUE BRIDGE: Ignoring the Obvious

> BUS SYSTEM IMPROVEMENT: Key To Transportation Progress

Showing 7 reactions

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  • A.S. Merrimac
    commented 2019-04-30 13:05:23 -0400
    We will be replacing the Moakley Bridge, mostly likely, in less than twenty years-so how will the city handle traffic to the courthouse? Concrete structures are proving to be very susceptible to climate change. The Northern Ave. Bridge has shown its resiliency and hardiness through decades of neglect. I think it’s only been painted once in half a century! Had it simple been painted cars could still drive over it today. Only a drawbridge at grade can offer a truly pedestrian & bicycle friendly option to everyone.
  • John Allen
    commented 2019-03-19 21:07:55 -0400
    Jim Braude had an interesting comment about the Seaport area today on WGBH-FM: the development went forward not only without convenient public transit but also without a library branch, post office, police station, fire station, elementary school…a neighborhood without neighborhood amenities.
  • Steven Miller
    commented 2019-03-19 18:42:35 -0400
    I’m confused about your complaints. The relatively new Moakley Bridge isn’t going to be replaced in my lifetime — but if rising storm tides wipe it out sooner than that, much of the Seaport will have become uninhabitable. The real issue about Fan Pier is that living there or having an office there costs more than most Bostonians can afford to pay, not whether it’s one block further from through-traffic. On the other hand, creating a pedestrian-bicyclist version of the Northern Avenue bridge will make the area both more attractive and more useful for people throughout the area. Rather than be upset that the rich occupants of Fan Pier are getting away with something, it might more sense to push to replace polluting, noisey, congesting car traffic (and its gross mis-use of public space for parking) with high levels of public transit!
  • A.S. Merrimac
    commented 2019-03-19 16:42:36 -0400
    Having no bridge at the end of Northern Ave. allows the Fan Pier development to remain an isolated corner which doesn’t have to deal with throughput traffic like the rest of the city. This allows those residents to live in what amounts to a cozy exclusive community. Also when the Moakley Bridge needs replacement. The entire corner of the South Boston waterfront will be essentially cut-off from downtown
  • John Allen
    commented 2019-03-14 14:01:09 -0400
    Steve — Thanks for the clarification and cost estimate. I could have read more carefully, but now also also it is clear to me that you meant paths to form a bridge connecting to both South Boston and the Financial District
  • Steven Miller
    commented 2019-03-14 12:38:21 -0400
    John: you are right on all counts but one. Back when the bridge was too broken for trucks and cars but still passable, it was constantly used by walkers and cyclists — and, I think, would be used again should it feel safe and inviting for them. And, yes, a ped/bike connection to a central social space would be enormously simpiler to design and cheaper to build — I’ve heard an estimate in the order of $20 million rather than the $100 million for a vehicular bridge. But, I thought I did say that “And it would make sense to connect that space to the shore with small (and relatively cheap) walking and bicycling paths — as desired by the majority of the surrounding community (and the tourist industry).” Maybe the word “small” hid my meaning — but such a bridge would, in fact, be much smaller than a vehicular passageway. Steve
  • John Allen
    commented 2019-03-14 10:50:03 -0400
    Steve — when you say that “[I]t might make sense to create an attractive space on top of the old bridge’s mid-channel foundation for push-cart vendors and hanging out.,” you imply that there is a connection to shore. You make a cogent case for not restoring the bridge for motor traffic, but I didn’t find anything in your article other than the sentence about the mid-channel foundation to suggest that the bridge be maintained/restored/replaced for bicycle and pedestrian traffic. I found it quite convenient for that use, and I was not alone in that: nonmotorized traffic across the bridge was significant when I used it. Wouldn’t the cost be much lower? Could you comment on this, please?