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Dark Cloud Of Transportation Mess Hangs Over Seaport's Bright Future

As Boston continues its building boom, the lackluster transit offering in the city’s Seaport district poses a challenge to developers bringing more supply and people to the neighborhood’s already clogged streets and busways. 

Evening traffic out of Boston's Seaport

“I do think this is Boston’s biggest transportation challenge,” Perry Brokerage’s director of intelligence, Brendan Carroll, said. “It’s having an adverse marketing effect on what people believe to be the new front door to the city. From a tenant perspective, being near the train is one of the first things that comes up.”

The average walk to rapid rail transit from a Financial District office building is three minutes. It takes about 12 minutes to walk to get to a train from an office in the Seaport, according to Carroll’s Node report on Greater Boston’s transit-accessible CRE.

While the Seaport is the city’s current darling of development and has record-low vacancy rates in the lab and office sectors (6.3% combined), transit accessibility remains a concern to sustaining tenant interest. Office leasing is high (nearly 2M SF has been absorbed) and combined office and lab vacancy rates low (6.6%) in areas within a 10-minute walking radius of rapid rail transit. Greater Boston’s vacancy rate outside that quick transit radius is 12.7%. 

“The caveat to the Silver Line is that, while it’s not fair to say it’s a complete failure, the Seaport neighborhood has simply been more successful in the last 10 years than anyone in Boston could have imagined,” Carroll said.

The World Trade Center Station on Boston's Seaport Silver Line

The Seaport extension of the Silver Line was originally called the South Boston Piers Transitway during construction over the course of the Big Dig. Originally envisioned as a rail tunnel, the project was downgraded to Bus Rapid Transit after the infrastructure project hit its notorious cost overruns.

As the neighborhood’s parking lots have given way to more office and residential towers, the Silver Line has been clogged with people trying to get home or to work. The SL2 that runs to Jamestown’s Innovation and Design Building operates at 123% of its maximum capacity in the morning, according to the 2015 South Boston Waterfront Sustainable Transportation Plan. Trips in and out of the neighborhood will rise by 63% during peak hours when the neighborhood's final 17M SF of projects are completed by 2035.

Better transit is needed; BRT is limited by individual bus size and there is no more expandability permitted under the current system, Carroll said. 

“What we were envisioning as the developable parts of the Seaport is not what is being developed now, as seen with the L Street Power Plant, Falcon Cruise Terminal and the Innovation and Design Building,” Carroll said. “You see world-class money going into the Seaport with the expectation of a transportation solution.”

Silver Line BRT at Courthouse Station in the Seaport

Redeveloping a former industrial area like the Seaport is not a project unique to Boston, as cities around the world look to repurpose these neighborhoods into mixed-use hubs due to their central locations. Transportation has been a key concern with most, as the neighborhoods lacked transit in their former lives due to less dense populations during their industrial days.

Melbourne Docklands, in Australia’s second-largest city, was an active shipping area until 1990 and is in the process of becoming a 20M SF mixed-use neighborhood. Similar to the Seaport, the Docklands has rail transit running along its borders but is pursuing better intra-neighborhood transit like a tramway to accommodate its projected 400,000 workers and residents by full build-out.

The developer of an ambitious $11.6B proposal to rebuild the Battersea Power Station and surrounding neighborhood in London has said connecting the burgeoning neighborhood to the London Underground is vital in making the project one for the 21st century

Continuing the Silver Line tunnel under D Street to avoid car traffic and a bus-to-rail conversion that could see it linked to an upgraded Fairmount Line are both expensive options proposed as ways to boost the Seaport’s central transportation line. The combination of Seaport landlords, developers and tenants have an aligned interest to have an effective transportation plan, leading transit advocates to push for companies to subsidize service upgrades like Wynn Resorts’ $7.5M subsidy to boost service on the Orange Line to get employees to its casino currently under construction in Everett. 

“Companies like Reebok, GE and Gillette are some powerful players that really want to create a splash with their new home and don’t want it to be a traffic juggernaut,” Carroll said.