Imagine taking public transportation from Harvard Medical School to East Cambridge and never passing through Downtown Crossing – for the local inhabitant, a miraculous feat.
Picture a speedy, clean bus that whisks riders from Brookline Village to their jobs near Roxbury’s Dudley Square.
Such marvels of transit efficiency, dubbed the Urban Ring by planners and by the MBTA, exist somewhere between utopian fantasy and “all aboard” reality. If realized, the project could promote economic development, reduce traffic congestion, and combat sprawl. But harsh realities – chief among them hard, cold cash – threaten its progress.
The promise and pitfalls of this major infrastructure initiative were the subject of a town meeting convened at the Kennedy School of Government’s ARCO Forum by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston on June 24.
Fourteen panelists, deftly orchestrated by moderator Alan Altshuler, director of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for State and Local Government and the Stanton Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at the Kennedy School, brought perspectives from transportation, planning, development, environment, finance, and commerce to the discussion.
Connecting the spokes with a wheel
In plain geography, the Urban Ring is a 15-mile-long, 1-mile-wide corridor that surrounds the center of Boston, running through East Boston, Chelsea, Everett, Somerville, East Cambridge, Lower Roxbury, Columbia Point, and South Boston. It forms the wheel around the “spokes” – current MBTA lines – that emanate from the hub that is downtown Boston.
“The defining characteristic of this corridor, historically speaking, is that it was kind of the back yard for Boston central,” said Richard Garver of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Land was cheap there, he said, so the city filled it with industry and dense housing for laborers and other new residents.
It also became home to some of the region’s major educational and medical institutions: Harvard Medical School and the hospitals of the Longwood Medical Area, Boston University, Northeastern, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Massachusetts, Boston. In all, the corridor supports 300,000 residents and 350,000 jobs; the region is poised for growth.
Peter Calcaterra, project manager for the MBTA, stated the obvious: For the residents, employees, and customers of the corridor, it’s difficult to get in and out of those activity centers using the T’s radial design.
Calcaterra outlined the T’s proposed three-phase plan to ringing the city: The first phase, effective immediately, would improve the T’s current crosstown bus service and preserve right-of-ways along the corridor that are crucial to future Urban Ring service.
Phase two adds and improves commuter rail stations and adds bus rapid transit, “a concept that allows buses to move more like rapid transit,” said Calcaterra, describing the 60-foot, low-emissions buses that would run in lanes separate from traffic. The third phase, targeted for 11 – 15 years from now, would provide rail service on the most heavily traveled segment of the ring, from Lechmere station in East Cambridge to Dudley Square.
Benefits beyond transportation
Panelists heaped praise on the Urban Ring, citing a wide range of benefits that the project could bestow on the city.
The transportation boon alone gave several panelists reason to crow. Sarah Hamilton of Medical Academic and Scientific Community Organization Inc., which represents the planning and development needs of the Longwood Medical Area, described the current public transportation to her institutions as a competitive disadvantage.
“Lack of mobility is a huge problem for our area,” she said, adding that the Longwood institutions must compete with other more accessible schools and hospitals to recruit and retain employees, train students, and treat patients.
By more efficiently moving people around the city’s circumference, the Urban Ring would relieve pressure on the MBTA’s crowded Green Line, said Dennis DiZoglio, assistant general manager for planning and real estate at the MBTA.
Other panelists lauded the ring for benefits that go beyond better transportation. The project will spur development and economic opportunities, said developer David Vickery and Jim Klocke of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. Susanne Rasumussen, who represents the city of Cambridge in the Urban Ring planning process, added that the enhanced transportation of the Urban Ring could reduce the need for parking spaces tied to new development.
By replacing individual drivers, the Urban Ring could ease congestion on the city’s streets, aid in the creation of desirable “walkable” neighborhoods, and ease the environmental impact of cars, panelists said.
“The Urban Ring alone shifts more people from cars to transit than every other project in the long-range transportation plan added together,” said Stephanie Pollack of the Constitutional Law Foundation.
Paying for the ring
With so many cheerleaders touting so many benefits, what could possibly stand in the way of the Urban Ring?
Money, of course. Calcaterra estimated costs at $100 million for the first phase, $500 million for the second, and up to $2 billion for the third.
“The T really cannot afford any expansion projects within its existing fiscal constraints,” said Glen Tepke of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. The MBTA’s financial woes range from deep debt to a backlog of necessary improvements, he said, and no transportation project in the state has come in on budget.
Not only would the Urban Ring require the support of state taxpayers from Pittsfield to Provincetown, many of whom would make little use of the service, its scale would also mandate federal funds, said the T’s DiZoglio. The legacy of the federally funded Big Dig, plagued by cost overruns, will harm the Urban Ring’s chances at another national handout coming to Massachusetts.
Financial realities aside, most of the panelists agreed that the Urban Ring is a necessity for the transportation infrastructure of a growing region.
“When do we start treating this as something we’re going to do instead of something we’re going to talk about or something we’re going to plan for?” asked Pollock.
“The Urban Ring will represent a terrific and very important legacy for those who create it,” said architect and urban planner David Dixon, the incoming president of the Boston Society of Architects. “This is a project that can make more of a contribution to the livability of this region than any project on the table.”