New Seaport garage makes sense

The news that Massport is moving forward with a planned 1,550-space parking garage in the Seaport District, and that the city wants to add another 550 spaces to its garage in the nearby Marine Industrial Park, unleashed some negativity on social media and elsewhere.  The negative reaction was no surprise to those of us who have been watching the Seaport District suffer under the burden of a mobility system that isn’t working very well.  The Silver Line is at or beyond capacity at peak hours, and the SL1 and SL2 buses too often look shabby and poorly maintained. Pedestrian movements throughout the Seaport District can often seem dangerous, and are largely uninviting. As for safe, best-practices cycling lanes . . . well, there aren’t any.  You get the picture.  The public and private sector stakeholders of the Seaport District, which is drawing private sector investment beyond anyone’s most optimistic forecasts, haven’t yet been able to sort out how best to serve the mobility needs of visitors, workers, and residents in a way that is truly multi-modal and sustainable.
Many people look at mobility in the Seaport District, and wonder why more attention isn’t being placed on making the district a much more pedestrian- and bike-friendly environment, and why the Silver Line is left to struggle along with no plan or proposal to solve its capacity and routing issues.  Moreover, if we care about sustainable mobility, we should want to encourage modal shift. Making it easier for people to drive into and park in the city doesn’t accomplish that goal.  So news of two large-scale garages hit many people the wrong way.

The blow back was predictable, but in many ways its focus on Massport was unfair because the mobility mess in the Seaport District is largely not Massport’s fault.  The garage story obscured the essential fact that there would not be a South Boston Seaport District without the pioneering leadership of Massport in the 1980s, and the foresight that agency brought to development in the district.  If you walk in the Seaport District and have decent views of the harbor, it is likely that you are standing on Massport-owned property because it was Massport’s planners nearly 20 years ago who understood the importance of, and planned for, the pocket parks and open spaces that offer unobstructed views of the harbor.  The garage story also obscured the work Massport has been doing to make itself an agency that takes its impacts on the city’s quality of life seriously. Indeed, Massport has embraced a culture of sustainability. And while it may not be perfect in that regard, it’s important to recognize good work when it exists, especially given the history of that agency.

Massport’s commitment to a sustainable and community-friendly agenda was not always the case. I grew up in East Boston, spent more than half my life there, and still have family and many friends living in “Eastie.”  If you lived in East Boston during the 1960s and 1970s, you remember vividly the contentious relationship between a community literally fighting for its life – and its future – and a public authority on an expansion mission, struggling to take a woefully inadequate aviation infrastructure and push it into modernity.  The tactics used by Massport in the 1960s became politically toxic, and eventually led to the forced removal of its leadership and the inauguration of a long era of rapprochement between the agency and the East Boston community.  Over time, Massport came to realize that it was very much in its interest to take sustainability seriously, and to act on it.  Two initiatives are worth noting.

The first relates to reducing the number of vehicles traveling to Logan. VMT reduction (as it is called) is an important pillar of building a sustainable mobility system.  Reducing vehicle miles traveled requires modal shift (getting people to move from a car to a high occupancy vehicle), and modal shift requires investment in systems that are appealing to people as alternatives to the car.  One of the principal ways Massport has helped reduce VMT to Logan Airport has been its investment in the Logan Express bus service.  Inaugurated as a response to the constraints of traffic congestion and a parking freeze, Massport began the Logan Express service in 1986.  Since then the agency has invested well over $100 million toward this mobility option, and toward subsidizing the Silver Line 1 service.  The combination of Logan Express, Silver Line bus services, and Blue Line trains provides about 20,000 seats to get people to and from Logan Airport – one reason why a little over 30 percent of the travelers using Logan do so in a high occupancy vehicle.
A second initiative worth noting is the consolidated rental car facility at Logan Airport.  The facility literally borders Maverick Street, the site of one of the major community activist movements in the 1960s, when citizens (mostly women) stood in the street to prevent heavy trucks from using their neighborhood as a pathway to Logan. When I was on the Massport board, I worked with agency officials to tame the size and scope of the consolidated rental car building. Today, that building responds well to the adjacent community, and it has reduced circulating bus trips from 100 to 30 each hour by replacing individual rental car shuttles with a consolidated Massport low-emission bus service.  The consolidated facility – a LEED Gold certified structure – is a good example of smart, strategic thinking, opening up precious land to a land-constrained airport while reducing emissions and VMT significantly on airport property and enhancing traveler convenience.

Back to the Seaport District. There’s no denying that a number of significant actions must be taken to improve mobility there, and make it operate on a more sustainable platform.  One hurdle to making this happen may be the multiplicity of public entities that would need to come together in a unified approach – the city, the MBTA, Massport, and the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority.  Each has a major ownership and operational stake in the district, and while they have collaborated on two South Boston Waterfront Sustainable Transportation Plans, they need to be constant collaborators.  Even the State Police have a role to play in this: their refusal to allow Silver Line busses to use the ramp leading down to the entrance of the Ted Williams Tunnel is a persistent barrier to faster, more reliable transit service to Logan. The MBTA in particular needs to consider how it will respond to the clear need for more and better transit in the district.  The Seaport TMA, the topic of a recent TransitMatters Codcast, is showing promising leadership by inaugurating a pedestrian wayfinding initiative and exploring how to encourage more trips on consolidated shuttles and via harbor shuttles.

Massport’s garage, designed to keep traffic off local streets and offer more sustainable modal choices, is probably the best approach to a parking facility that could be hoped for in the Seaport District, certainly more than any private sector builder would offer. The location of the garage and the recently announced Omni Hotel complex have been designated for development since the days the Big Dig was planned and designed, so having more density and vibrant uses on this site is neither unanticipated nor unwelcome. More to the point, the garage, in large part, will provide replacement parking for spaces that are or will soon be eliminated as a result of other development in the Seaport District, or for development that has been anticipated for some time. The actual net new number of parking spaces in the 1,550-space garage is about 300.  While many people, myself included, would prefer less parking, the reality is that this new garage will not be as negatively impactful as some people worried it might be.

Those of us who care about mobility in the Seaport District need to move toward a larger conversation – and action – focused on improving non-vehicular mobility to, from, and within the Seaport District.   Introducing safe, best-practices cycling lanes, creating more welcoming pedestrian pathways, deploying high standard Bus Rapid Transit on Summer Street, prohibiting vehicles from using the old Northern Avenue bridge – these are the actions that will launch the Seaport District toward a more efficient, equitable, and sustainable mobility future.  Eventually, what really needs to happen is the construction of a new harbor tunnel crossing dedicated exclusively for transit and emergency vehicles. None of this will happen without the commitment of all public sector entities that have a stake in mobility in the district, or without the active support of the private sector stakeholders (including the increasing numbers of condo owners and residents) who have significant investments there.