Acrimony over Seaport gondola plan speaks to need for expanded MBTA service
Much ink has been spilled in the Boston press over a plan by luxury developer Millennium Partners and its subsidiary Cargo Ventures to spend $100 million to build an aerial gondola system from South Station up Summer Street across Fort Point Channel to the possible future site of what may one day be either its 2 million-square-foot (Boston Globe) or 2.7 million-square-foot (Boston Business Journal) “office campus.” Millennium and Cargo have development rights on “at least three major parcels in South Boston’s Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park and adjacent Massport Marine Park,” according to BBJ. All of which is public land.
According to the Globe, “The proposed gondola system on the South Boston Waterfront would include a hulking terminal across Summer Street near South Station, 13 large towers spanning the one-mile route to the marine industrial park, and about 70 cable cars that can fit 10 passengers each, running every 9 seconds.” The cable cars are currently slated to run from 30 to 50 feet above the street.
An early version of the plan would have had the gondola system traveling as high as 160 feet and traversing a Mass Pike interchange to go directly to the Millennium campus, according to BBJ, but the company just released a scaled-back version that terminates on its Summer Street side—after pushback from state port authority Massport over safety concerns and from the owners of the future $550 million Omni hotel.
News coverage of Millennium’s Seaport project has focused on the gondola itself over the last several months. Which is understandable because it’s an easy target. In fact, my first reaction to the plan was that a giant catapult would be a better idea—if the developer’s goal was simply to get buzz for its project. But it’s a rather specific solution to a real transit logjam that could help keep lots of cars off Seaport roads daily. And, as Boston.com pointed out, it has been proposed before—in 2016, by the office real estate quarterly Blue by Encompass. So I don’t think that it’s just a marketing scheme. And I don’t think the support it’s garnering from South Boston politicians Mayor Marty Walsh, Rep. Stephen Lynch, Rep. Nick Collins, and Councilor Michael Flaherty is necessarily ill-considered either. Especially since Millennium is already discussing a “second phase” for the gondola project that will go—surprise, surprise—across the Reserved Channel into the heart of South Boston proper.
Millennium has an agreement with the city to spend up to $100 million to mitigate the negative effects to Seaport transportation of dumping a big new job site on an already crowded neighborhood, according to Boston.com. The existing transportation options in that district currently being the MBTA Silver Line restricted access bus service, some regular MBTA bus lines, cars, walking, and bicycles.
My problem with the proposed gondola system, then, is not the idea itself. I don’t think it’s practical, but I do think that some kind of elevated mass transit system makes a hell of a lot of sense if you want to avoid existing vehicular traffic and prepare for future global warming-induced flooding.
If crosswinds and storms are a serious concern for gondolas—and, in a Twitter dustup with project boosters, critics like former Mass Secretary of Transportation Jim Aloisi have made clear they are—then perhaps a sturdier alternative like a monorail would fit the bill.
Sure, the idea would trigger mocking laughter even faster than a gondola system, given how much of the population has seen The Simpsons’ infamous monorail boondoggle episode. But the biggest issue with any private alternative transportation proposal for the Seaport is that it would be yet another example of major corporations having too much power to set public policy agendas. Developers like Millennium both dominate policy that applies to their core business and literally get to change the face of the city by completing their developments. With little or no meaningful input and control by the various communities affected by its several projects around Boston. From the completed Millennium Tower to the nearly greenlighted Winthrop Square Tower.
From that perspective, Millennium is cooking up a new way to privatize what should be part of improved and expanded MBTA service. Just like the MBTA’s On-Demand Paratransit Pilot Program—currently extended to April 1—is already doing by contracting some of its “The Ride” service to Uber and Lyft. Instead of developing a municipal ridesharing program that’s a more equitable deal for both drivers and riders like Austin, Texas, did.
If more transportation options are required, then better to focus on ideas already under study by government planners and transit advocacy groups like Transportation for Massachusetts. Create more dedicated bus lanes throughout the Seaport, add more buses, and build separated bike lanes. Also, consider one active proposal that hasn’t been mentioned much in the feeding frenzy around the gondola idea—revive passenger service on the unused Track 61 that runs from Back Bay Station to the Seaport. The MBTA is already adding a third rail to part of that track and using it to test new Red Line subway cars between 2019 and 2023. So it should be possible to fund its reactivation all the way out to Marine Park, as Rep. Collins proposed to the Globe last summer.
However this particular fight plays out, local and state governments should never invest in expanded transit alternatives to serve the needs of one particular corporation or group of corporations. And they certainly shouldn’t allow companies like Millennium to create unfunded mandates like a private gondola system that could simply shut down the moment there’s a market downturn or the initial investment is spent. Rather, Boston and Massachusetts should carefully plan public transit expansion that best meets the needs of all the communities it would serve. And properly fund it by taking the Big Dig debt burden off the MBTA, and increasing taxes on corporations (again, like Millennium) and the rich (like its owners) to pay for the markedly improved service that the public at large deserves.
If, after a deliberative public process, it turns out that a gondola actually makes sense for parts of Boston like the Seaport, then let the MBTA build and maintain it out of government funds. In a MassLive article last August when the plan was first being floated, Rep. Lynch “said he would prefer the gondola system to be part of the MBTA, rather than a standalone system.
“‘If it goes to a private firm, they can pretty much charge whatever the market will bear, which might not accommodate everyone.’”
If, as is more likely the case, there are a number of other tried-and-true ways to reduce traffic congestion in the Seaport while increasing development, then do that instead.
Just remember that if the city doesn’t construct major defenses around the harbor soon, then ever fiercer and more frequent global warming-driven storms coupled with ongoing sea level rise induced by that same warming—like the three nor’easters we’ve now suffered in a mere 10-day span as of this writing—will wipe the floodplain that is the Seaport cleaner than the surface of the moon within a few decades.
Rendering the entire debate over the Millennium gondola even more pointless than it would otherwise be.
Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.