The Big Dig was a 20-year building binge that gave Bostonians an infrastructure hangover.
Suffering from construction fatigue, frugal New Englanders un-invited the Summer Olympics. (Opponents of the games didn't want to pay for new stadiums, or over-burden an already overburdened T or sit in even more traffic on Storrow Drive.) But when General Electric asked if they could call Boston home, we said, “Yes.” Now, with HQ2 in the balance, what will Amazon decide? The digital behemoth is already investing in Boston: It's delivering 900 new jobs to the Seaport, in addition to potentially taking another million square feet in a new Seaport office building.
Take a deep breath and block out the HQ2 Hunger Games for a moment. Boston is home to world-class institutions and top-notch talent. But we are what we build, or what we don’t. Regardless of whether or not we land HQ2, Boston has been saying “no” to infrastructure for too long. Our future depends on these five infrastructure projects — and our chances of landing Amazon would’ve been higher had we slept off our infrastructure hangover years ago.
- GLX Project: aka the Green Line Extension is the most famous thing Boston never built. Plans for its construction go back to the 1990s. The project consists of: 4.3-miles steel rails, six new stations, one rebuilt station, a maintenance facility, bike and pedestrians trails. The work is to be restarted in 2018 after its original start a few years ago was canceled because of a billion-dollar cost overrun. Building new rail lines, next to old rail lines, in an existing right-of-way should’ve been finished for less. Today it’s a more than $2 billion burden. GLX officials are hoping the lines will be open for service in 2021, just in time to celebrate its 30th year as a good idea.
- Blue Line/Red Line Connector: connects transit challenged East Boston (Amazon’s potential site at Suffolk Downs) to the Red Line at MGH. The Blue Line is the only line not connected to the Red Line, the system’s mainline. In the early 1990s, as payback for enduring decades of upcoming construction from the Big Dig, East Boston was promised a direct connection between the Blue and Red lines, which would’ve extended the tracks 1,500 feet from Bowdoin Station at Boston’s City Hall, to Charles/MGH Station. Gov. Mitt Romney quashed hopes for building the Blue Line/Red Line Connector in the early 2000s.
- Northern Avenue Bridge: In 1908, the Northern Avenue Bridge began swinging over Fort Point Channel. One of the last swinging bridges in the country, it was closed to vehicle traffic in 1997, and to pedestrians and bicycles in 2014. It’s a shame. By now, residents and tourists could’ve experienced Boston’s answer to New York City’s High-Line. Restoring the bridge for traffic, rebuilding the five-story fireboat station (built in 1912) into a wooden boat center and bringing back the bridge tender’s house by turning it into a restaurant would offer access to the water. The bridge’s maintenance could be paid with tourist dollars from cold craft beers and delicious lobsters.
- Downtown Silver Line Tunnel: Roxbury residents were punished in 1987 when its most important link to downtown, an elevated rapid transit line running along Washington Street, was torn down. Had the promised tunnel been built, the egregious situation would’ve been mitigated. Instead, it took more than a decade to deliver the rapid transit Silver Line buses as a replacement. And worse, the Silver Line buses failed from the start to meet the definition of “rapid transit.” (To this day, Roxbury’s Dudley Square remains a rapid transit desert.) The never constructed Silver Line tunnel would’ve allowed buses to travel unobstructed between Chinatown and the Seaport District, by way of South Station. Roxbury residents and employees would’ve had a single seat ride between Dudley Square and Logan Airport — most of it in tunnels.
- North/South Rail Link (NSRL): Philadelphia, London and many cities older than Boston have improved the quality of life in their cities by building the equivalents to our long debated NSRL. The big idea: Build one station to replace two. North Station is a dead-end known in railroad speak as a terminal. Amtrak’s Downeaster, out of Portland, Maine, and commuter rail trains from the north, end their journeys at North Station. South Station is a dead-end, too. Amtrak and commuter rail trains screech to a halt coming up from Washington, D.C., and points south and west. For roughly the same cost as the GLX project, the NSRL would unite our divided commuter rail system by bringing nine lines and Amtrak through Boston, while increasing the flow of commerce up and down the New England coast. Housing would be more affordable and travel times to and from Boston would improve.
A few decades ago, Boston was known for its dirty water. Today, we’re known for our shiny Innovation District on new-and-improved Boston Harbor waters. Building a better subway system, tunnels to-and-from the Seaport and inspiring public works is vital to keep Boston moving forward. If Amazon comes, we’ll have to build these projects to handle the rush of new firms that relocate here in order to be near Amazon. If the disruptive giant passes on us, we’ll need to build the projects — and others — in order to attract more innovators.
Infrastructure is how we remain one of the world’s great cities.