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Boston’s Next Bus Rapid Transit Line Would Link Downtown, Sullivan Square Before the End of This Decade

10:49 AM EST on January 10, 2024

A rendering of a bus rapid transit station with red-painted bus lanes in the center and large boarding platforms on either side. Signs on top of the canopies above the platform say "community college". On either side of the platform are crosswalks and multiple lanes for car traffic.

Bus rapid transit advocates from ITDP, an independent transit advocacy group, created this rendering of a proposed Rutherford Avenue busway and bus rapid transit station. Although official designs are still in the works, the City of Boston has endorsed the broad outlines of this proposal for an upcoming redesign of Rutherford Avenue. Courtesy of ITDP.

An updated new design for Rutherford Avenue would set aside space for a dedicated center-running busway through Boston's Charlestown neighborhood and eliminate highway-style underpasses through Sullivan Square.

Last month, Boston Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge presented the City of Boston's new concept to a meeting of the Boston Region Metropolitan Planning Organization (watch the video recording here).

The city's latest plans would also eliminate the highway underpasses that run under Sullivan Square and Austin Street.

In place of the daunting highway rotary that occupies Sullivan Square today, the city aims to build a grid of new surface streets, many of which will include dedicated bus lanes and separated bike paths.

The blocks between those new streets could potentially host new transit-oriented development for a neighborhood that's currently blighted with huge parking lots.

The city's proposed project would also create new protected bikeways through Sullivan Square and along the Rutherford Avenue corridor to connect existing off-street path networks along the Mystic River to the new North Washington Street bridge and the Paul Dudley White bike paths along the Charles River.

A map of Charlestown highlighting existing bike and bus lanes and planned bus and bike infrastructure associated with the planned Rutherford Avenue redesign. In the map, the new bus lanes and bike path run from the Charles River in the lower-center of the map to the Sullivan Square area in upper left.
A map of Charlestown showing the proposed new bus transitway (red dashed lines) and bike paths (green dashed lines) proposed under the City of Boston's redesign of Rutherford Avenue. Solid red and green lines denote existing bus and bike paths, respectively.

New transitway anticipates demand from new development

Developers are already making big plans for the empty and underutilized lots that lie between Rutherford Avenue and Interstate 93. Planners recently approved a 503-unit apartment building on Mystic Avenue just north of Sullivan Square, and the City of Boston is working with another developer to build 686 new homes, many of them reserved for lower-income households, in the Community College parking lots south of Austin Street.

A rendering of proposed new apartment buildings along Rutherford Ave. The Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge is visible in upper left, and the new buildings range in height from 6 stories along Rutherford to 12 stories near I-93.
A rendering of new mixed-income housing proposed for the Community College parking lots between Rutherford Avenue and Austin Street. The rendering pictures the existing Austin Street highway underpass (foreground center), which would be eliminated in new City of Boston plans for Rutherford Avenue. Courtesy of the BPDA.

Other developers are planning additional high-rise lab buildings for the blocks south of Sullivan Square.

“We have quite a bit of development on tap for the corridor, particularly on the western side of Rutherford Avenue. Through the city’s Plan: Charlestown we anticipate many thousands of units of housing, and millions of square feet of development happening here. We know there’s going to be strong demand for connectivity," said Franklin-Hodge.

To improve the street's capacity to move more people, the city plans to replace some of the existing highway's lanes with two dedicated bus lanes and new bus stations in the middle of Rutherford Avenue – similar to the new Columbus Avenue busway in Roxbury.

While no MBTA bus routes currently use Rutherford Avenue end-to-end, the busway would benefit several existing and planned routes, including the 111 and the 109.

In the longer term, as new buildings bring more riders into the neighborhood and nearby areas, like lower Broadway in Everett, the City of Boston hopes to create a new bus rapid transit route that Sullivan Square and downtown Boston.

The MBTA's ongoing Silver Line Extension study identified Rutherford Avenue as a likely link for potential new bus rapid transit lines between Everett and Kendall Square or downtown Boston.

“It is difficult for the MBTA to make service commitments or do planning more than a few years out for what kinds of new services might exist. When we think about a design for this project, we’re thinking 50 years into the future," said Franklin-Hodge. "What kind of transportation needs will exist then?"

Construction could begin in 2027

Franklin-Hodge told the Boston MPO meeting that the city hopes to have a final concept design ready by February. The city would then develop more refined plans in hopes of starting construction in early 2027.

But that schedule presumes that there won't be any further meddling with the project's design – which, given its history, isn't a sure bet.

Plans to rebuild Rutherford Avenue and turn it into a more pedestrian-friendly boulevard have been in the works for over a decade. When the project was first proposed in 2011 , a number of Charlestown residents actually wanted the state to maintain Rutherford in more or less its current form, with ten lanes of traffic.

During Mayor Walsh's administration, another proposed design would have added a protected bike path and some new bus lanes, but it would not have included a dedicated bus transitway.

Walsh's administration also wanted to retain highway underpasses at Austin Street and through Sullivan Square, albeit with fewer lanes, to allow through-running vehicles to drive through the corridor at high speeds without stopping.

When we last reported on the project in 2021, planners estimated that that version of the project would break ground by 2023.

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