The Green Line is part of the oldest subway in America. During the 1890s Boston was growing at a fantastic pace. The harbor was booming and the factories and mills around eastern Massachusetts were pumping at top speed, manned by wave after wave of new immigrants from Europe that were pouring out of the continent and onto the New World’s shores in hopes of a better future. The transportation for the working man was the trolley. First drawn by horses and eventually drawn by electricity, trolleys were the technology of the day when it came to commuting and were very successful at transporting many people many miles from their homes to their work. But they were too successful; trolleys packed the streets in downtown Boston so tight that it was quipped at the time that it might be faster to get to work by running along the tops of the trolleys stuck in traffic.
Traffic like this became a reality in cities at the end of the 19th century. Before, most communities would mix work and commerce in with residences. But when the technology improved to allow people to move out of crowded downtowns and live in the suburbs, which bad begun to grow around cities at this time, and people began commuting to work over longer distances. But what happened was as more people began to move into the suburbs there would be greater needs for more trolleys to ferry them to and from work everyday (This very same thing has happened with highways and the automobile and will undoubtedly happen with the next great, affordable, transportation improvement). Many solutions were floated at the time, such as building an elevated railway downtown (which proved objectionable to the wealthy merchants and bankers living along Beacon Hill), a new street that would run down the area between Tremont St and Washington St (which proved objectionable to the property and business owners in the area), and a subway, which was a relatively new technology that had only been tested in a couple of European cities and were under consideration by many more, including a few American cities. A commission was set up to study the ideas and in 1894 they recommended that a combination subway and elevated train line be built with branches connecting Boston to its new suburbs as if spokes connecting a hub to a wheel.
The first section that was to be constructed was a subway from Boylston St to Park St and then on to Scollay Sq (today’s Government Center) and North Station via Haymarket Sq. The tunnels would collect and connect the trolley lines coming from the north to those coming from the west and south. The first section opened in 1897 from Boylston St to Park St. As soon as the entire subway was built it was heralded as a success and soon new transit line were being constructed to Roxbury & Charlestown (Orange Line), Cambridge, & South Boston (Red Line), and East Boston (Blue Line) [Note: Each subway was not referred to by colored lines until after 1967 when the new MBTA modernized the subway graphics, forever defining the subways in Boston as "The T"].
The Green Line was soon expanded and its role as a collection tube for trolleys soon changed as commuting patterns changed. People were moving further and further out, requiring new tunnels and stations further apart for quicker travel into the city. A new subway to Kenmore Sq under the Back Bay was opened to speed travel to the west as was a new elevated line to Lechmere in Cambridge, past North Station, was constructed. Eventually even this was not enough and plans were proposed to convert the entire line to heavy rail and further expand. But this time Boston was in an economic depression, soon to be followed by the entire nation, and very little was done in terms of expansion (Kenmore station was built in anticipation of a future conversion at this time; the middle two tracks were built on lifts over a sunken track pit that was the correct height for heavy rail trains). In the early 1940s Boston received some monies to construct the Huntington Ave subway (todays E branch) but what was built was a far cry from the original proposal to construct a new subway under Stuart St in the Back Bay and out to Mission Hill.
After the war Boston took a much longer time to emerge from economic stagnation then the rest of the nation. The next addition to the Green Line was in 1959 when the Riverside Branch (D) was opened. This was continuing in the tradition of preparing for heavy rail conversion as the Riverside Branch was a former commuter rail line through Newton that had shut down and ran in a dedicated right-of-way (trolleys ran in mixed traffic in the streets). This new branch proved very popular and soon put a strain of the rest of the system for trolley cars. As was the case in many cities after the war buses were quickly replacing trolleys, and in Boston it was no different. Boston had been converting it’s trolley lines over and by the 1960s there were only a handful of trolley lines left. The first line axed was the line from Park St to Egelston Sq via the South End. It was cut back further and further until it became a short shuttle line from Lenox St in the South End to Boylston St, but soon this was removed. The remaining lines were named during the MBTA’s design overhaul in 1967. The new branches are what you see today with two major exceptions; the A Branch from Watertown to Park St via Brighton and Allston and the E Branch to Forest Hills (Arborway). These were cut back and “temporarily” taken out of service due to budget cuts in public transit.
What happened to the Green Line happened all over the nation at this time so it is not fair to blame the MBTA solely. But even with renewed interest in rapid transit lines over new highways, they have not seemed to be able to capitalize on new federal monies (due mostly to the Big Dig which scared many lawmakers away from continuing to give Massachusetts federal dollars). After they were sued in the 1990s by the Conservation Law Foundation, the Commonwealth pledged to invest in public transportation to offset the negative effects of the Big Dig. Commuter rail lines out to the suburbs represented by powerful state senators were constructed but inner city transit was only left scraps. Two prominent projects were the extension of the Green Line to Union Sq in Somerville and West Medford, and the restoration of the Arborway trolley line to Forest Hills. The state has since reevaluated their priorities to public transit and have pledged to construct the Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford but once again passed on restoring the Green Line to Arborway (most likely at the behest of Mayor Menino who is notorious for disliking street running trolleys).
Central Subway Improvements
The biggest problem facing the Green Line is that it was never designed to be operated the way it is today. The purpose of the original subway was to take trolley cars (which usually ran as single cars back in the day) off the crowded downtown streets. The idea of trolleys as rapid transit in the same sense as heavy rail like the Orange and Red Lines didn’t come around until after most of the system was built. The Boston Elevated Railroad knew this when they were planning to expand the system in the 1920s and planned converting the Green Line into a heavy rail subway like the Blue Line (which was an old trolley subway converted to heavy rail). They planned on running the Blue Line from Bowdion to Park St and then down Boylston St to Kenmore Sq where a new subway under Comm. Ave would take it into Brighton. The curve at Boylston St would have been enlarged so it was not as tight. The second section of the Green Line planned was partially constructed, the Huntington Ave subway was part of a much larger plan that had the subway continuing under Stuart St in the Back Bay, connecting to the Green Line using the Tremont St tunnels (the tracks leading off to the left on the image above, currently abandoned) that run from Boylston St south to where Tremont St splits into Shawmut St. Because of funding shortages and a prolonged economic depression the full plans were never fulfilled and where the Huntington Ave subway connects to the Central Subway at Copley has proved to be the worst bottleneck in the entire system.
The best investment of capital funds that the MBTA could possibly make would be to realign the Central Subway. Here is a track schematic to illustrate my plan. The this colored lines represent the tracks, the thick colored lines represent the station platforms, dashed lines mean the tracks are below the top tracks.
A – Remove the bottleneck of the Copley Junction by dropping the Huntington Ave subway under Copley station into a second two track tunnel to just past Arlington station where it would ascend to meet the current tracks.
B – Rebuild Boylston station. Realign the 4 tracks from Park St south into the Tremont St tunnels, eliminating the curve, and build a new two track tunnel under Boylston station to continue on to South Station. Also, build a set of tracks that dive under and bypass Boylston station entirely creating an express track from Park St to Copley Sq.
C – Build a second two track tunnel from Park St to Government Center, rebuilding Government Center so there are two parallel platforms and a third platform below that would serve the Blue Line and the loop track coming from the north. Also create a turnaround loop that dives below the tracks continuing to Haymarket. This realignment will fix the second worst bottleneck in the system, the stretch of subway from Park St to Government Center that was only built two tracks wide.
D – Stuart St subway, which would be an alternative to choice A, would take the Huntington Ave subway into its own tunnel and connect to the Central Subway via the abandoned Tremont St tunnels. Provisions would be made to extend the Tremont St tunnels down to Dudley Sq. This plan also calls for extending the Huntington Ave subway down Huntington Ave into Brookline to connect to the Riverside branch, rerouting the D and E branches into a new subway and expanding capacity in the Boylston St subway.
What all this realignment would accomplish is this: It would take all the traffic coming off the D and E branches and funnel them into a new tunnel thus expanding capacity along the Boylston St subway by 50%. It would run the C branch to South Boston Waterfront thus connecting the area to offices, hotels, and entertainment in Back Bay. It would speed up the B branch by eliminating the curve at Boylston and allow for increased capacity. It would also allow more trains to go on to Government Center thus taking pressure off trains at Park St and two new platforms at Government Center would better handle traffic than the current oddly shaped platform. This, I feel, should be the MBTAs number 1 priority.
The Urban Ring is a transit plan put out by the MBTA to connect all the transit lines (subway, bus, and commuter rail) that come into downtown Boston with a ring of transit. The purpose of this is two fold; the first being to take pressure off of the 4 major downtown transfer points (Park, State, Gov’t Center, and DTX), and second to connect large job centers, primarily Kendall Sq and the Longwood Medical Area. The current plan is a three phase process starting with improved crosstown bus service, then moving to Bus Rapid Transit -BRT- (e.g. Silver Line), and finally constructing a subway line either using Orange Line heavy rail or Green Line light rail.
The idea for an urban ring is not new. The first instance of a transit line encircling Boston was put out by Robert Gourlay, a Scottish writer and urbanist. When he first came to the young United States in 1817 he realized that the new nation would be building many new cities and that there had to be a scientific way to do so. He began crafting ideas for cities, making him one of the first urban planners. In his “General Plan, for enlarging and Improving the City of Boston”, Gourlay proposed something completely radical: fill in the Back Bay and line the Charles River with a park and train line. He also proposed connecting the Providence, Boston & Worcester, and Fitchburg train terminals with underground tunnels (we don’t have this either). Nothing came of Gourlay’s plan, though he must have planted a few seeds in the minds of Bostonians.
(I mean to have an image of Gourlay’s plan but I can’t find it online. You can see it in the book “Inventing the Charles River” by Karl Haglund)
The problem most people have with the current plan is that it doesn’t serve enough areas and that it relys mainly on slow moving buses in mixed traffic. I do want to go on record saying that I am all for improved crosstown bus
service but I am not for relying completely on buses. I do believe that any serious transit plan needs to take them into account and to propose ideas that would improve bus traffic (dedicated lanes), but in the end any urban ring proposal needs to center around an actual subway line. Here is my proposal:
To start with, this is not just a proposal for the urban ring but it is a fundamental rethinking of how the Green Line would operate.
What this map shows is a series of rings formed by connecting the ends of the Green Line through Cambridge and Boston. The Green Line as we know it today would function as half of the ring while the other half could go through Harvard and Allston (#1) or Kendall Sq (#2). Since the southern end of the Green Line has multiple branches this gives us more options for where to connect the ring. The first connection would be to Kenmore Sq (#3), either directly under the Charles River or by a new tunnel under Comm. Ave. The next possibility would be under Huntington Ave (#4), connecting Longwood into the ring. The last option would be the most dramatic, connecting the ring to Dudley Sq (#5) where a new tunnel under Washington St would connect the ring into downtown.
What would happen to the trolley service we have now is this:
- B Line would be placed in a tunnel to Brighton where it could terminate or continue to Boston College.
- C Line would cease going to North Station but would instead travel to South Boston via a new tunnel under Essex St (what Silver Line Phase III is planning on building).
- D Line would connect to the Huntington Ave subway and shuttle service would be instituted along the stretch of track connecting Brookline with Kenmore Sq.
- E Line would be truncated or switched to Washington St tunnel.
If two of the connections were built then this would give the T much more room to try different services and to reroute trains if one becomes disabled.
Unlike the first phase, these lines would only feed into the new urban ring tunnels, not the Green Line tunnels.
The three options as thus: Construct a new line, both in tunnel and at grade, to connect Lechmere with Everett, Chelsea, and Logan Airport (#1). This proposal is currently in the long term plans for the actual Urban Ring but only as BRT. The next would be to use the under-used Saugus Branch ROW that runs along Everett to Malden and Saugus before terminating in Lynn (#2). Service here could terminate at a Park-&-Ride facility at the interchange at Route 1 or continue to Saugus and Lynn. The last options is a line through Charlestown in a tunnel to Chelsea and on to Revere (#3). This would be the most expensive since express bus service covers this basic route today, but I just threw it in there anyway.
This is no simple plan and will most certainly cost billions of dollars. But if you only think about it in terms of how much it’s going to cost you then you aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. The Green Line today is a relic of Victorian era transportation and it is evident every time you ride it. Installing a brand new artery that doesn’t funnel people in and out of the city twice a day but circulates them throughout the business areas, residential areas, and entertainment areas will completely change the way people think about living in the city.
The problem with the current plan for the Urban Ring is that it still clings to the transportation theories of the mid 20th century where people come in from the suburbs at 8am and then leave at 5pm. While there will always be commuting into the city, the city cannot grow and prosper when this is the only option. We need a new way of thinking about how mass transit can strengthen a city and I think that these proposals are a good first step.