Bus tunnel to open, but waterfront boom lags
Projections down for ridership
The MBTA's biggest expansion in decades -- a $601 million tunnel for electric buses from South Station through the South Boston waterfront -- is set to open in about three weeks. And for all the delays and cost overruns and engineering problems the project encountered, planners have a bigger worry: that the city's newest transit route might feel at first a bit like a bus to nowhere.
The second phase of the Silver Line, complementing the first-phase bus service along Washington Street from Roxbury to downtown, is designed to make the trip easier to the federal courthouse, the new convention center, and, eventually, Logan Airport.
It was also supposed to coincide with a furious building boom on the waterfront. But dozens of acres of development sites are still parking lots. The T has cut its ridership projections from 45,000 per weekday to 14,000 by 2006.
''We've gone from people being worried about the Silver Line being here to the Silver Line being here and the development buildout yet to occur," said Michael H. Mulhern, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. ''The development is inevitable, but it will be a few years downstream."
For now, however, passengers boarding buses at South Station will be whisked under the Fort Point Channel to the new Courthouse Station, which is the length of two football fields, has a projection system for ''paperless" advertising, and is adorned with stainless steel wall panels. But when they walk upstairs to the street, they will emerge to a sea of parking lots.
That's because the 25-acre waterfront property owned by Frank McCourt has yet to be sold to a developer, while the owners of the 16-acre Fan Pier site, next to the federal courthouse, also have not completed a sale.
One stop down, riders can alight at a gleaming, three-level World Trade Center Station. But that is also surrounded by construction sites and a parking lot. The convention center, which is only just beginning to book big shows, is a 700-foot walk away.
There are some buildings up and running that will be served by the Silver Line, including the Seaport Hotel, the World Trade Center exhibition hall and office buildings, and the Manulife headquarters at the corner of D and Congress streets, where the electric buses run directly underneath. About 1,800 employees will eventually work in the Manulife building; the company predicts that 78 percent of them will use transit.
By next summer, the Silver Line will become a new way to get from Logan Airport to South Station, connecting all terminals via the Ted Williams Tunnel. Some Silver Line buses will also serve the Marine Industrial Park and residential South Boston.
This is not the first time that a transit line has opened in advance of new development or expects relatively small ridership early on, said Jose Gomez-Ibanez, a transportation specialist at the Harvard Design School. Light rail projects in Miami and Los Angeles have been initially lightly used.
''There are a bunch of planners who believe transit is a stimulus to development," he said. ''I'm more of a fan of extending transit to denser communities that have lousy transit access now. Or you wait until [the development] is really there."
MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo countered: ''If you build it, they will come."
Officials at the T, who are excited about their first major expansion since the extension of the Red Line to Alewife in 1984, argue that the Silver Line will swiftly become a critical part of Boston's landscape.
''We now have the infrastructure to support development, and that's the first question a developer asks," said Mulhern. ''The city wants 60 percent of the people getting to and from that area to use transit. And the waterfront is a prime piece of real estate from a social and cultural point of view. The physical barrier of the Central Artery is gone and now people will be able to get there."
He also predicted that the T's key hub will eventually shift from Park Street to South Station, where Silver Line passengers can transfer to the Red Line, commuter rail, or intercity rail.
Silver Line Phase II, originally known as the South Boston Piers Transitway, was pushed by the late US Representative J. Joseph Moakley, who helped secure federal funding. The original cost estimate was about $400 million, which increased to just over $600 million.
Engineers encountered several challenges in building the line, including a boulder that was in the way of the tube crossing the Fort Point Channel; concerns about building stability where the tunnel runs under historic Russia Wharf; delicate coordination with the Big Dig northbound tunnel, which is at one point only a few feet beneath the Silver Line busway; and now-plugged leaks in several sections of the tunnel walls that were disclosed last week. T officials also ran into some controversy about the location of the stations -- the Courthouse Station, about a 500-foot walk from the federal courthouse, and the World Trade Center Station, which is not at the new convention center's front door.
Anthony Flint can be reached at email@example.com.