The Silver Line is a crock

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The Silver Line is a crock
by Alison Barnet Contributor
Monday Dec 7, 2009

Some people claim the Silver Line damages brick crosswalks; others complain about the screeching noise. Are these their main concerns about the Silver Line?

How about being packed in like sardines? Then watching a near-empty bus rush pass, sometimes two? How about the time it takes for people to pay their fare and get on, the traffic downtown and around Dudley Station, the cars in the bus lane, the rude drivers? "Push to the rear!" they yell. If I’m at a safe distance, I yell back, "It’s not our fault!"

How about the Silver Line as wool pulled over our eyes? It isn’t a line like the Red, Green and Blue, but the MBTA added it to its map as though it were. It’s "Bus Rapid Transit" or "Direct Connect," a bus different from every other bus in the system for no good reason, public transportation patched together to make it seem it has substance.

The riders, by and large poor, minority, and homeless, are shuttled from other neighborhoods down Washington Street in the rich South End. They are keenly aware of class issues; they know the emperor has nothing on. They instantly grasp the irony of a Mercedes Benz colliding with the Silver Line bus. They talk about being in "programs," about applying for "housing," and by "housing," they mean public housing, not a South End loft. Those who used to live here point out the window at their former homes as we trundle by. Once, when we passed a big white tent swarming with bureaucrats, a man in back commented, to appreciative laughter, "What’s it going to be? More f-ing condos?"

I miss the elevated Orange Line every day. The much-maligned El that used to run down Washington Street carried more passengers daily than any other MBTA line (and it was a line) and was indisputably the most reliable-ten minutes flat from, for example, Northampton Station to downtown. Sometimes it too was crowded and had its troublemakers-the Herald once dubbed it Terror Train-but it was a lot more civilized than the Silver Line.

A friend recently commented that the El was a landmark-drivers still fail to recognize Washington Street without the familiar structure-as well as a symbol. While to some it was a symbol of blight-they bitterly complained about rusty bolts falling on their heads-to me it was a symbol of freedom: freedom to go where I wanted to when I wanted to, freedom to live where I lived and still feel like a citizen of Boston, connected to the city as a whole, instead of a native of the outback, clutching a bus pass. It was liberating to fly above the street peering into top floor apartments. The El had character and soul, which the Silver Line does not, and we felt it was always there for us, something we cannot say about the Silver Line.

In 1987, after almost twenty years of planning and community meetings and with federal monies burning in their pockets, the MBTA opened the new Orange Line on the Southwest Corridor. Although it claimed to be merely "moving" the line, which sounded like a minor inconvenience, the new train was several blocks from Washington Street and bypassed a big chunk of the South End and Roxbury-the black community. Someone went to one of the meetings and heard a T spokesperson promise that replacement service on Washington Street would be "equal to or better than" the El, and this became a catch phrase for the Washington Street Corridor Coalition, of which I was a member. The Corridor Coalition advocated for Light Rail Vehicles on Washington Street, a permanent and substantial form of rapid transit that would connect us directly to the rest of the subway system, as the El had-a genuine "direct connect."

In the El’s final weeks, photographers and artists came from all over the world to document it. At that late hour, most agreed it was a remarkable structure.

Before service ended forever, the Corridor Coalition held a solemn wake. Wearing black, we got on the train at each of the stations with a cardboard coffin labeled "The Orange Elevated Line 1901-1987." Ministers said prayers "to acknowledge our sense of loss and give voice to our hope for an even better replacement service."

Soon after, a not so "equal to or better" #49 bus began running down Washington Street. In all the years I’d lived in the South End, I’d never felt so isolated. If a friend across town called me on the spur of the moment and said, "Let’s go to the movies," I’d never hesitated before. Now I had no idea how long it would take me to get there.

In 2002, the much-touted Silver Line turned out to be more frequent than the #49 but more of the same. At the inauguration, we dubbed it the "Silver Lie," chanting, "IT’S NOT A TRAIN, IT’S A BUS!" until we were hoarse. Although sixty-feet long, the Silver Line crams us in like the #49, but now we have bus stops with canopies like reverse flying buttresses so high off the ground there’s no shelter from the weather. How absurd that people stand under them with open umbrellas, that snow covers the silver seats (which have become home for many), and that the history of the El is relegated to sepia photos on a box on the side.

Too much ado about nothing, after all these years? Maybe the hurt would go away if we had public transportation worth the ride, but we don’t.

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