WE BOTH HAD THE SAME THOUGHT as soon as we heard about Boston vying for Amazon’s new headquarters facility: Locate it at Suffolk Downs and leverage the opportunity to take a giant leap forward in improving local and regional mobility. Suffolk Downs on paper is an ideal site for a large campus complex: over 100 acres of largely undeveloped land two minutes from an international airport and with two MBTA Blue line stations already in place at the north and south ends of the site. By any standard, these attributes make the site exceptionally well-positioned to compete for the most attractive development concepts available in the marketplace.
But the site comes with many challenges, not the least of which is the need to build with climate change in mind. Suffolk Downs is adjacent to the Belle Isle Marsh and includes marshland within it, so it is a prime candidate for best practices, state-of-the-art resilient development. But it’s the mobility challenges and opportunities that we want to focus on here.
Suffolk Downs lies adjacent to a portion of Route 1A that, like many other similarly situated highways in Greater Boston (and the nation), is largely congested during morning and late afternoon/evening peak travel periods. For this site to work, it needs to work as a high functioning transit-oriented site. It would be ideal to bring people into the site from the North Shore, particularly if they could park in downtown Lynn and take the Blue Line directly to Suffolk Downs (or Logan Airport or downtown Boston). But North Shore commuters cannot do that today because the Blue Line hasn’t been extended to Lynn. And there’s another significant drawback that detracts from the opportunity: the problem with the Blue Line is its lack of full connectivity as the only subway line that does not connect to the Red Line.
The connection of the Blue and Red Lines – an obligation arising from Big Dig mitigation requirements that has never been fulfilled by the state – and the extension of the Blue Line to Lynn are critically important to making the site work as a truly sustainable, transit-oriented development.
If you envision a mid-late 21st century Greater Boston region, it is a place that embraces sustainable mobility and provides people with multiple, reliable, and affordable public transportation choices. Having the Blue Line remain as the only line that does not connect to the Red Line deprives countless numbers of people the chance to conveniently access jobs and fully participate in the prosperity of the city and region. It also deprives people in Cambridge (or anyone with access to the Red Line north of Charles/MGH) a chance for an easy transit ride to Logan Airport, something that they do not have today. And having the Blue Line dead-end in Revere without extending to downtown Lynn means that thousands of citizens on the North Shore are being deprived of equitable, efficient transit access to destinations such as Logan and downtown Boston.
More to the point, not connecting Blue/Red and not extending the Blue Line to Lynn limits the private sector opportunity to do something sustainable and creative at Suffolk Downs. Sure, development can and will take place at that site whether or not these transit initiatives are fulfilled, but it will not be the kind of equitable, sustainable development that ought to be the prime consideration for the few remaining large tracts of undeveloped property in Greater Boston. If Suffolk Downs is going to be developed as a vibrant jobs and housing-rich urban growth center, it needs improved transit connectivity.
The MBTA owns a large and largely underutilized garage in downtown Lynn – that facility could be filled every day with people from Lynn, Swampscott, and other North Shore communities who would park and take the Blue Line to Suffolk Downs, Logan Airport, or downtown Boston. If the Blue and Red lines were connected, those same people could have a one-seat ride to Massachusetts General Hospital. This is a matter of social equity, smart economics, and sustainable mobility.
We know that our transit system begs for strategic expansion. We knew that when we had our robust debate about hosting the 2024 Olympics. It was clear to everyone on both sides of that debate that Greater Boston did not have a transit system that was up to the task of hosting such an event, and a large part of the discussion was centered on the need to invest in significant transit access and connectivity initiatives. The Green Line extension and Silver Line 3 projects are important and critical to regional mobility (and air quality), but they are hardly enough, and the failure to move forward on connecting the Blue and Red Lines will put unfortunate limits on private sector investment in areas that must be targeted as transit-oriented development sites.
As our region continues to grow jobs, the public and private sectors are challenged to find ways to keep up with the demand for affordable housing, and that means not only “low income” housing but housing for folks in the middle who are being priced out of many Boston and adjacent community neighborhoods. One way to balance out our relatively higher housing costs is to offer accessible, affordable commuting costs for workers.
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