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New Silver Line plan offered, stirring critics

Tunnel cut may save time, $700m

A Silver Line bus made its turnaround on Temple Street yesterday at Downtown Crossing.
A Silver Line bus made its turnaround on Temple Street yesterday at Downtown Crossing. (Globe Staff Photo / Wendy Maeda)

State Transportation Secretary John Cogliano proposed a new plan yesterday for the final, critical phase of the MBTA's Silver Line bus service that he said could save $700 million, cut construction time by several years, and avoid community opposition.

But the proposal immediately drew criticism from state, environmental, and business leaders, some saying that Cogliano did not consult with them about it until this week; they fear the proposal could scuttle or delay separate plans the MBTA and city officials had been hashing out.

The original plan for the final phase of the project had been tabled in August because of community opposition. Putting forward another proposal now could further complicate an already controversial plan, which must be approved by federal transportation officials to get financing from Washington.

Cogliano's proposal, which he said was drawn up by state planners with the hope of breaking an impasse, would connect the two existing Silver Line routes: one that runs from Dudley Square to Downtown Crossing and the newer route from South Station to Logan Airport, which opened last June. It would also keep the buses on surface streets through most of downtown and connect to the South Station tunnel through a new portal on Essex Street, near Atlantic Avenue.

The previous proposal called for a milelong tunnel under Chinatown that was intended to speed the buses through the congested downtown. But Cogliano said that travel times, as well as transfers to subway lines, under the new proposed route are comparable to those of the longer tunnel, at one-eighth the cost, or $94 million instead of $800 million.

A new station on Winter Street near Downtown Crossing would allow Silver Line bus passengers to enter a glassed-in enclosure where they would transfer to subway service on the Orange, Red, and Green lines free of charge. Buses from Dudley headed to South Station, South Boston, and Logan would take a right from Washington Street onto Kneeland Street and a left on Surface Road to reach the shortened tunnel, with a portal built at Essex Street.

Cogliano's plan would also extend Silver Line service south along Warren Street from Dudley station into Grove Hall, Mattapan, and Ashmont, with connections to the new Fairmount commuter rail line, which runs through Mattapan and Dorchester. This extension of the Silver Line, which could replace the Route 23 and 28 bus routes, goes through neighborhoods where many residents depend on buses. The old plan did not extend the Silver Line south.

In addition, the proposal calls for a new Silver Line spur from Copley Square to the proposed Essex Street portal, offering what could be a transfer-free, one-seat ride from the Back Bay to South Boston and Logan.

''This new option presents an opportunity to improve service and meet our transit commitments in the most cost-effective and efficient manner possible," Cogliano wrote this week to MBTA General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas.

''It's just a proposal," he said in an interview yesterday. ''I want it to be reviewed, and I want public input."

Under the previous plan, Silver Line buses would go below ground at New England Medical Center and use a dedicated tunnel that would pass under Bay Village, Downtown Crossing, and Chinatown, with connections to the Orange and Green lines. The plan met with significant community opposition because of impact on residents and ambulance service.

The T was seeking federal funds for 60 percent of the project, which received a ''not recommended" rating from the Federal Transit Administration several years ago. Grabauskas pulled the project from federal consideration in August, saying that if it received a similar rating a second time, especially given the lack of community support, it might not receive federal approval and leave the two existing stretches of Silver Line unconnected.

Contacted about Cogliano's proposal, Grabauskas said yesterday, ''The MBTA is reviewing this and all other alternatives, working with all parties in order to complete this important project." He said Cogliano informed him of the new plan two days ago.

Cogliano's proposal, however, raises questions about the nature of the Silver Line, which was first touted as ''bus rapid transit," using dedicated lanes on surface streets and tunnels to decrease trip times at half the cost of building a trolley system like the Green Line, which operates underground and on above-ground tracks. Over time, however, the Washington Street branch of the Silver Line has come under harsh criticism from riders who say it has become just another plodding bus route, because the dedicated bus lanes have not been kept free of traffic.

''This may meet transit commitments, but it does not meet the commitment that the T made to provide 'equal or better' service when the Orange Line was torn down," said Sierra Club spokesman Jeremy Marin. ''According to T studies, it took eight minutes from Dudley to downtown, but the bus currently takes 20 minutes."

Richard A. Dimino, president of the Artery Business Committee, said he was ''surprised and disappointed that Secretary Cogliano would submit an alternative idea regarding the Silver Line at such a late hour.

''I'm disappointed that this plan is coming to the forefront when the MBTA and the city have been working hard to come to some resolution," he said, adding that the latest proposal from the T would use a portal near Marginal Street and keep the buses underground without disturbing Boston Common or New England Medical Center. He said he was told of the project this week.

House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, a Democrat from the North End, whose district is in the bus route and who opposed previous plans, said yesterday he is in ''full agreement" with the Cogliano plan.

But Secretary of Commonwealth Development Douglas I. Foy said the final phase of the Silver Line must be a tunnel. ''A lot of work has gone into finding an acceptable portal for getting the Silver Line underground," he said. ''I think that process will yield results soon and we can fulfill our promise for world-class service from Washington Street to the waterfront."

Cogliano said he would welcome review of the proposal.

Mark Slater, president of the Bay Village Neighborhood Association, said the new plan appears to meet the transit needs of the city while protecting the fragile homes in Bay Village, which were built on poor soil and sit on pilings whose stability needs ground water levels to remain unchanged. The proposed tunnel, he said, could have played havoc with those levels.

Mac Daniel can be reached at mdaniel@globe.com.

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