The Red Line Extension That Never Was
Patrick Sullivan | January 30, 2015
The Red Line has the highest ridership of any of the MBTA’s rail lines. Stretching North to South from North Cambridge through Downtown Boston and then branching off into Mattapan and Braintree, nearly 273,000 daily unlinked trips are taken on the Red Line’s 21 route miles. The Red Line was the last of the four subway lines to open, with service between Harvard Square and Park Street commencing in 1912. Since 1912 the Red Line has been extended many times, with the most recent expansion coming in 1985 with the opening of the line's northern terminus, Alewife Station.
The story of the Red Line’s Northwest Extension to Alewife Station is a fascinating one. Planned over the course of 30 years and constructed during a brief moment in US history when the federal government was providing billions of dollars for public transportation projects, the Northwest Extension began as a grand vision for suburban and urban mobility. However, the final result was only a sliver of this grand plan.
For those that don’t know, for over a decade the Northwest Extension plan called for the Red Line to run northwest from Harvard Square to Alewife Station then through Arlington and Lexington to Route 128. The extended line would be a mix of above and below grade track along the Boston & Maine Railroad's Lexington Branch Right-Of Way - what is now the Minuteman Bikeway. Imagine that.
Photo: HARVARD STATION 1912" BY UNKNOWN - BOSTON GLOBE FROM BRADLEY H. CLARK COLLECTION.
After opening in 1912, the Red Line underwent a series of small expansions up through 1928 when Ashmont Station was opened. From 1928 to 1970 the Red Line route from Harvard Square to Ashmont remained unchanged. The extension to Andrews Square and Quincy Center was completed in 1971, a major expansion for a line that remained unchanged for over 40 years.
The fact that the Red Line was not expanded between 1928-1970 is not surprising when you consider that during that 40 year period the City of Boston experienced significant population loss. Additionally, many large corporations began relocating to suburban areas, further depleting the number of people coming in and out of Boston each day. The public transportation projects planned during the 1960’s and 1970’s were a response to suburban growth. With traffic volume inside Route 128 increasing beyond the capacity of most roadways, it was clear to city planners that public transportation was the only remedy for breaking gridlock. Additionally, city leaders concerned about the economic health of the City of Boston saw subways as an economic development benefit for the city.
The first plans to extend the Red Line north of Harvard Square were developed in 1945 by the Metropolitan Recess Transit Commission. The expansion plan and subsequent report first called for an extension of the subway from Harvard Square through Porter Square, with “high speed” electric trains running along existing rail right-of-ways through Arlington Heights and terminating on the western edge of Lexington. While some elements of the Commission’s report were eventually implemented, the western expansion of the Red Line remained nothing more than a plan for nearly 30 years.
An extensive search of the Boston Globe archives revealed that there was little public discourse regarding transit expansion during the 1950’s and 1960’s. This might come as no surprise considering that this was the heyday of the automobile boom in America. Eisenhower-era America was much more concerned with building super highways then subways. But by the late 1960’s, public transit was once again a hot topic on Beacon Hill and in the pages of the Boston Globe. In 1964, as part of their master plan, the MTA (predecessor to the MBTA) authorized $200 million dollars for rail expansions that included an extension of rail service from Harvard Square to Arlington. Despite the support of the MTA, Boston’s Mayor Collins, and many powerful local business leaders, the funding required for this plan never materialized.
It was not until a sea change occurred in how federal highway dollars were distributed that Massachusetts finally had the ability to embark on an ambitious plan for expanding the Red Line. The Federal Highway Act of 1973 for the first time unlocked federal funding for mass transit projects, offering a 90/10 federal funding match that put transit funding in line with highway project funding. The timing of this could not have been better. Just three years prior Massachusetts Governor Sargent issued a moratorium on new highway construction inside the Route 128 Beltway, signaling a renewed emphasis on expanding mass transit.By early 1973 the Boston Transportation Planning Review released a report examining options for expanding the Red Line beyond Harvard Square. The Northwest Corridor Report recommended expansion to Alewife Station and beyond through Arlington and Lexington, with a terminus station and parking at Route 128 in Lexington (likely somewhere near Hartwell Avenue). The MBTA worked with the City of Cambridge and towns of Lexington and Arlington for the next 10 years to study the environmental and economic impact of using the Lexington Branch Right-of-Way to expand mass transit through these communities. The studies investigated both above-ground and below grade options for the rail line. The final alignment through Porter Square and Davis Square to Alewife were finalized by 1974 but questions about expansion through Arlington and Lexington lingered. In March 1977 Arlington held a public referendum vote in which residents voted against supporting the expansion of the Red Line through town. Fearing increased traffic and other “evils”, Arlington residents all but squashed any chance there would be to extend the Red Line to Route 128. It’s hard not to think about what could have been. Image if the Red Line was constructed below grade along the Lexington Branch Right-of-Way and the Minuteman Bike Path was built above it? It's important to consider that these decisions were made at a time when the economic benefits of living near mass transit were not completely known. Yet in hindsight we can say with near certainty that not only would residents and commuters in these towns benefit, but a station along Route 128 would have certainly provided some relief to the single-occupancy vehicle gridlock the highway experiences on a daily basis.
For those who like to daydream about what could have been or what maybe could someday be, there are some great websites with drawings of potential routes and stations through this corridor. Maps like the one below offer an exciting view of what was envisioned for the region just after World War II.
FutureMBTA has a number of northwest expansion scenarios, including ones similar to the original plan and other more creative approaches to expanding transit to Route 128. There also an entire Flickr album dedicated to maps and photos of future MBTA expansion options.
Looking back at the history of the Northwest Extension plan, it's natural to wonder if there's a chance that someday the plan for expanding the Red Line past Alewife might become a reality. While I think it's safe to assume that residents of the Greater Boston area have a greater appreciation for the economic and environmental benefits of mass transit, there will always be the issue of "not in my back yard." This right-of-way literally runs through hundreds of backyards in Arlington and Lexington, which would make construction along the corridor a long and costly process with the potential for delays due to lawsuits and community opposition. Many obstacles would stand in the way, but that shouldn't supersede the simple fact that something needs to be done to alleviate traffic congestion inside Route 128. If an extension of the Red Line isn't the answer then other options need to be explored. The solution is out there. Lets find it.