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The Tracks Are New, But the Green Line’s E Branch Still Gets Stuck in Traffic

Two Green Line trains and an MBTA bus meet at the Mission Park stop of the E Branch on Huntington Avenue in Boston.

Two Green Line trains meet at the Mission Park stop of the E Branch on Huntington Ave. in Boston. This segment of the Green Line is one of the last remaining areas where trains must share a lane with car and truck traffic, and stations lack dedicated platforms where riders can board and disembark. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Pi.1415926535, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Last week, the E Branch of the Green Line reopened to riders after a month-long construction project to replace tracks on Huntington Avenue.

But, as we noted in our coverage of the reopening, the project did not address one of the biggest challenges that the E branch faces: the fact that cars and trucks are still allowed to drive on those brand-new tracks on the 0.75-mile segment of the Green Line between Brigham Circle and Heath Street.

According to the MBTA, a "typical" E Branch trip along that segment takes about 8 minutes, and peak-hour traffic on an average day can add another 2-3 minutes. That works out to an average speed of under 6 mph on this segment without traffic; with traffic, an able-bodied rider would be better off just getting off the train and walking instead.

The problem isn't merely that cars block the tracks; this segment of the Green Line also has four middle-of-the-road stops, that require riders to wait for car traffic to yield in the adjacent lanes before they can board or disembark (see photo above). And because there are no platforms, these stations are also inaccessible to wheelchair users.

T officials say that the unpredictable delays associated with traffic and boarding on this short segment create ripple effects of unreliable service throughout the system: the E branch has worse on-time performance compared to the other branches of the Green Line.

But train riders aren't the only ones who suffer from the lack of dedicated transit lanes on Huntington and South Huntington. Congestion on those streets also creates a bottleneck for two of the region's busiest bus routes, the 66 (which runs between Harvard and Nubian Squares) and the 39 (which runs between the Forest Hills and Back Bay stations).

According to a 2016 analysis of bus delays on key routes, riders on those two routes collectively lose over 100 hours every weekday thanks to traffic congestion on the short section of Huntington Avenue between South Huntington and Brigham Circle.

Map courtesy of the Boston Region MPO.

That study was unable to retrieve data for bus delays for Route 39 buses on South Huntington, between the Heath Street and Riverway stops, but Boston officials estimate that more than half of all street users on that segment are bus passengers during the peak commuting hours.

Luckily, City of Boston and MBTA officials have both confirmed that "discussions" are happening about dedicated transit lanes on Huntington and South Huntington, although no official plans have been floated for the public yet.

"A dedicated right-of-way is one of several options that the T has been discussing with Boston and other stakeholders, as part of a larger discussion on how to design the Huntington and S. Huntington corridor to improve accessibility and accommodate changes in the future fleet," an MBTA spokesperson told Streetsblog last week. "Designers are currently discussing various configurations and options for realigning the track (e.g., running in the center of the street or moving them to the sides)."

The T's recent "Focus 40" long-range plan also called for a "dedicated right-of-way on Huntington Avenue for the E branch and the 39 and 66 bus routes between Brigham Circle and South Huntington Avenue," and notes that this would be a prerequisite for the City of Boston's proposed extension of the E branch into Hyde Square in Jamaica Plain.

Spokespeople for the City of Boston and MBTA did not, however, specify any timelines for these projects, even as their agencies charge ahead with dedicated bus lanes on other corridors.

Correction: This story was updated at 11:55 a.m. on Sept. 10 to specify that the City of Boston has proposed an extension of the Green Line to Hyde Square, not Hyde Park, as was previously written.

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