How Do We Fix Congestion Around Sullivan Square?


The time has come to tackle the transportation crisis in Sullivan Square and its vicinity. Morning rush hour Orange Line ridership exceeds capacity between Sullivan Square and State Street. For four hours every weekday morning, the average speed on I-93 southbound from Medford to Charlestown is less than 22 miles per hour. And the area will see significant development between now and 2040.

To combat this, MAPC and other public agencies are releasing detailed recommendations for public transit and transportation infrastructure improvements, including two new Silver Line routes connecting Chelsea to Kendall Square and Everett to North Station, improved Orange Line capacity, new bus and bike lanes, and transportation demand management. The goal is to reduce vehicle trips and congestion by making it easier for transit riders, cyclists, and pedestrians to navigate the area around Sullivan Square.

For the past two years, 11 public agencies have worked together to develop a picture of future growth around Sullivan Square and find solutions to the area’s travel woes, determining what could work by modelling different transportation improvement and future growth scenarios. On Thursday, March 14, the Lower Regional Mystic Working Group released a final report recommending specific policy and infrastructure improvements and identifying next steps for putting those recommendations into action.

This report “is about planning for lane use, planning for development, planning for transportation, and planning for our future,” said Boston Transportation Department Commissioner Gina Fiandaca at the report’s release.

MassDOT, MAPC, and the cities of Boston, Everett, and Somerville were all members of the working group. Other participating stakeholders included the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, the Office of the Attorney General, Massport, the Office of Congressman Michael Capuano, and Encore Boston Harbor.

The Lower Mystic Regional Working Group was created two years ago, shortly after the Massachusetts Gaming Commission approved the construction of Encore Boston Harbor, a large gaming facility in Everett. The group was tasked with assessing the impact Encore Boston Harbor and other projected and planned developments could have on travel conditions, and with identifying solutions.

The group found that planned residential and commercial growth could lead to 27,000 new households and 55,000 new jobs in the focus area – roughly five square miles around the Encore resort and Sullivan Square. These development areas include Assembly Square and Sullivan Square redevelopment in Boston, Commercial Triangle redevelopment in Everett, Union Square and Brickbottom redevelopment in Somerville, and Cambridge Crossing. The collective impacts of these will generate millions of dollars in state and local tax revenue and help to ease the region’s housing crunch.

Addressing this new growth – and the corresponding transportation needs – requires a comprehensive, regional approach, rather than project-by-project strategies.

“Shorter commutes make people happier and healthier and give people time for civic engagement,” said Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone. “We need to think bigger, not provincially, to take on challenges in mobility and housing.”

After modeling eight different transportation improvement scenarios, the report’s final recommendations for improvements to be made by 2040 include:

  • Improve time between Orange Line trains (a.k.a. headway) to 3 minutes.
  • Establish two overlapping bus rapid transit routes (BRT) from Chelsea Gateway to Kendall Square and from Downtown Everett to North Station. The report envisions these using the commuter rail right-of-way or dedicated lanes.
  • Improve local bus frequencies, modify routes, and add bus-only lanes.
  • Transportation demand management and parking reduction strategies, limiting single-occupant vehicle commuter trips. These could include reduced residential parking requirements, charging market rates for commuter parking, and encouraging employers to allow telecommuting and flex commuting.
  • Continue to develop the regional active transportation network with bicycle lanes and pedestrian paths and bridges, and incorporate Complete Streets Elements
  • New on-ramp to I-93 northbound from Rutherford Ave near City Square and at the existing Route 1 on-ramp and City Square

Implementing all the recommendations – what the report refers to as the “Final Package Scenario” would substantially improve job and labor accessibility for workers living in the study area. Currently, the average worker can reach 800,000 jobs within a 20-minute drive and 140,000 within a 40-minute transit commute. By 2040, they could reach 855,000 jobs within a 20-minute drive and 310,000 within a 40-minute transit commute.

The report doesn’t just lay out goals for 2040: it ends with immediate next steps for 2019. These include preparing conceptual designs for recommended transit improvements, fleshing our bus and BRT routes, and modelling interactions between buses, the Orange Line, and transportation demand management strategies.

Preparing for 27,000 new households and 55,000 new commuters to the Sullivan Square area will require years-long regional coordination, data-driven thinking, and prioritizing transit and active transportation. This report is the first step of many to reduce the headache of commuting in or out of this rapidly-growing area of our region.