Can the Urban Ring Transit System Become a Reality

Originally printed in The Boston Business Journal

September 30, 2002
Charles Euchner (Executive Director, Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston)

The Urban Ring — a transit line that would provide new transit service to the communities outside Boston's core, connecting the system's radial lines — could revolutionize the city. It could create a dynamic new look, relieve auto congestion, reduce downtown transit clogging and spark a new age of urban development. In the process, it could stem the region's sprawl and create new opportunities for both density and open space.
Or, the project could be a boondoggle, providing second-rate service and displacing minority populations in the process. Even if the state could get the federal money it needs to build the project — at least $600 million for the first two phases, another $1.5 billion for the third phase — the annual $25 million to $50 million in operational costs could drain money from existing service.
Those were some of the opinions expressed at a town meeting on the project — now called the top priority after the Big Dig and Silver Line — sponsored by the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
The Urban Ring is at once a simple and complex project.
First, the simple stuff: It's a "rim" that connects the spokes of the existing system's Red, Green, Orange and Blue lines, as well as the commuter rail service and major bus lines. Like the Circle Line in London's transit system, it provides a means for people to move around the edges of the urban core. Right now, too many trips require traveling in to Park Street or Downtown Crossing and then going out again on a different radial line.
Now the complications: The system would probably operate with more than one mode of transit. There would be traditional buses, new "articulated" buses, maybe some light rail in stretches and even heavy rail along other stretches. Along about half of the 15-mile route, buses would operate on dedicated lanes so they could avoid traffic.
But at other points they would jostle with cars and buses. Motorists would be tempted to use the bus lanes to escape traffic, especially after a snow storm with partly cleared streets. The ring would provide direct connections to other lines, but free transfers? Who knows? Maybe later.
Panelists extolled the virtues of the project, calling it Boston's best opportunity to integrate transportation, economic development and urban design. Top officials from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority said the project would protect the existing system, the nation's oldest, by easing the overload of the Green and Red lines downtown.
Development is already coming, said Stephanie Pollak of the Conservation Law Foundation and David Vickery of Spaulding and Slye LLC. The question is how the region accommodates that development — by bringing more cars into the city or creating urban villages with high density, a mix of land uses, walkable sidewalks and a mix of parks and other amenities.
New transit service is not the royal road to urban heaven — you also need housing and great design — but it's an essential part of that road. "The willingness of people to accept growth depends on better (transit) service," said Richard Garver, the Boston Redevelopment Authority official who has coordinated the joint efforts of the planning "compact" of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Everett, Chelsea, and Brookline.
The Urban Ring also offers an antidote to sprawl, said David Dixon, incoming president of the Boston Society of Architects. By "unlocking future rounds of growth" in the urban core, the system can stem the flow of businesses to the 128/495 corrider.
Universities and medical centers need the ring to accommodate tens of thousands of workers and millions of visitors. It could even give rise to new frontiers of tourism.
Here's where the complications begin. To realize all of these benefits — some of which are disputed by transportation and development experts — the system needs to be built. And three barriers stand in the way.
First, there are physical barriers. While Cambridge has led the way by creating clear routes for the system to move through the city, there are serious questions whether all of the segments of the ring will allow free movement of buses or trains. Projects in the pipeline threaten to create physical barriers — unless all of the communities act to protect the space. Creating a seamless route along the ring might require an act of the state Legislature.
Then there is the design barrier. If people are expected to use the system, the route and stations need to be attractive and feel safe. Six communities need to join together to create standards for building bulk, height and frontage; sidewalks, lighting and landscaping; and station location and configuration. It's doable, but it must be done.
Finally, there's the money barrier. As Boston moves into its post-Big Dig era, Massachusetts lacks the power to get big projects done in Washington. The commonwealth was the only state to see a reduction in transportation funds in the last round of funding.
If the project makes it to its ambitious third phase — rail service — it could cost at least $2.5 billion. That's what they used to say about the Central Artery. And that's before any of the vehicles moves down a street or track. Operating and maintenance costs could reach $50 million a year — money the MBTA does not have.
To make the Urban Ring possible, the T needs more money. Private money — possible from tax-increment financing, which would require state legislation — might be the only hope.
Still, enthusiasm for the Urban Ring is very real along Greater Boston's planners and transit and environmental advocates. "We can't lose our nerve," said David Lee, a former BSA president and the architect of the Orange Line. "This is a major project for this generation and the next."