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Building boom bottles up traffic in Boston. Office and hotel space multiplies; some relief for traffic clogs coming

``Boston is an exciting, vibrant city, but if we do have a problem, it is a transportation problem,'' says James Sullivan, president of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. Complaints are legion: trolleys that break down, streets that sprang from cowpaths, a dearth of taxis at peak travel periods, and traffic that gets bottled up at the worst possible times, to name a few.

Getting around the Hub has become more of a challenge as Boston has experienced a building boom, in part the result of former mayor Kevin White's desire to create a convention city.

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In the last 30 years, Boston's office space has doubled; its hotel space has doubled in the last 10 years. But the city's transportation system has not kept pace.

The taxicab industry is perhaps the most extreme example of the problem.

Although the center of the city is attracting more visitors, with new hotels at Copley Square and on the waterfront, with the tony Copley Plaza shopping complex and the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, and with new office space such as the Boston Stock Exchange, getting a cab can be tricky.

And no wonder. The number of cabs allowed to operate on city streets has remained constant for 54 years - at 1,525, says Capt. Donald Devine of the police department's hackney division, which regulates cabs.

The taxi industry has resisted any legislative move to increase the number of medallions, which are required to operate a cab.

``They're afraid of the competition. At least that's my impression,'' says Leori Halpern, public relations manager of the Boston Convention and Tourist Bureau. ``There certainly is a need for more taxis in Boston.''

The need is fueled by the construction craze. The completion of the $142 million renovation of Hynes Convention Center, which opened this earlier this year, means Boston is now able to handle about 90 percent of the available meetings and conventions in the country, according to Ms. Halpern. The center now has 220,000 square feet of floor space and can accommodate up to 22,000 conventioneers. It has booked groups through the year 2011 and has solid commitments for its peak seasons (spring and fall) through 1997.

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``That's not a surprise at all,'' says Helen Zia, editor of Meetings and Conventions magazine, published in Secaucus, N.J.

``It's not real unusual for a strong convention city. And Boston is a strong convention city. There's no doubt about that.''

Help may be on the way for frustrated travelers. Boston's building boom includes projects that city and state planners and private groups believe will alleviate the current traffic snarls:

Highway projects. The two big and much-talked-about projects are the building of a third harbor tunnel to accommodate traffic to and from Logan International Airport and the depressing of the elevated Central Artery, a part of Interstate 93 that cuts through downtown.

Under the plans, a new Central Artery would be opened underground in 1996 and would double its present capacity at key bottlenecks, with the elevated structure coming down in 1998. The new harbor tunnel would double the cross-harbor capacity at its expected opening in 1994 and would go directly from downtown Boston to the airport. The total projected cost is $3.17 billion.

But the interim period of construction - particularly the disruption to tourists and residents that will be caused by depressing the Central Artery - worries Boston boosters. ``Absolutely it will have an impact,'' says Robert Cummings, president of the convention bureau.

Mr. Sullivan of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce adds that his group is trying to reduce the time it will take to depress the roadway.

Airport traffic. Although 30 million people are expected to fly into and out of Logan by the year 2000, up from 23 million in 1987, the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), the state authority that runs the airport, expects that the surge will be manifested in fuller planes rather than in an increase in planes using the airport, according to Massport spokesman Phil Orlandella.

Logan is one of the busiest airports in the country, ranking 10th in volume. So for several years now, Massport has been encouraging people to use the subway, buses, taxis, and limousines to get to and from Logan. It even offers free bus service from the airport subway stop to air terminals, in a further bid to lure people away from their cars. And a Massport water shuttle makes frequent seven-minute runs from Rowe's Wharf in the business district to Logan and back. Jennifer Watson, Massachusetts' assistant secretary of transportation, calls it ``very successful.''

Some competition to air travel may be on the horizon, if Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis has his way. He and Connecticut Gov. William O'Neill head up a committee that is looking into establishing three-hour high-speed rail service between Boston and New York. A Washington-New York high-speed line is paying for itself and attracting more passengers than any airline on that route, Ms. Watson says.

Commuter rail. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which runs mass transit in Boston as well as the commuter rail system, is looking to expand its train service.

``Commuter rail is probably the biggest success story of the MBTA,'' says Watson, citing a 48 percent surge in ridership in the past five years.

One key program involves restoring the Old Colony Railroad from Boston to the south and southeast (reaching as far as Scituate, Plymouth, and Middleboro/Lakeville). Of the $838 million in state funds that Governor Dukakis appropriated in April for MBTA improvement projects, $195 million was earmarked for the Old Colony line, with an equivalent amount to be raised by the communities it serves.

``We could see service on part of the Old Colony line as early as 1991,'' says MBTA spokesman Peter Diamond.

Meanwhile, the T (as the MBTA is known locally) is encouraged by the heavy use of large garages at the Alewife and Quincy-Adams suburban stations on the opposite ends of the subway's Red Line and hopes to encourage use of commuter rail by building more parking space in the suburbs where rail lines intersect major highways and beltways.

Extensions of commuter rail are planned, and a feasibility study is being made on extending the commuter rail west from Framingham to Worcester, and south from Needham to Bellingham and the Route 495 beltway that circles Greater Boston. (The T opened a garage last week for more than 700 cars 3 miles south of the Franklin commuter rail station and a half mile from 495.)

Taxis. The Boston Convention Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce, Massport, the Boston Hotel and Motor Inn Association, and other groups are pressing to increase the number of cabs operating in the city.

Meanwhile, the city has inaugurated training for its cabbies, headed by Captain Devine. He says its genesis came when he took over the police department's hackney division in December 1985 and was told by the mayor and the police commissioner to help improve Boston's image. After investigating complaints about cabdrivers, he initiated a dress code and inaugurated the Spirit of Boston program. Under it, taxi drivers are trained in keeping the vehicles clean and safe, learning their way around Boston, and realizing their role as part of the hospitality of the city. The department created a 33-minute video incorporating these points as part of the training.

``A lot of cities throughout the country copied our model,'' Devine says.

Mass transit. The mass-transit system has become a part of Boston's building boom.

Already 5,500 people use the new Back Bay Station, opened last October. It combines Amtrak, commuter rail, and the subway's Orange Line.

The T also plans to create a superstation at North Station, where the Boston Garden sports facility is situated. North Station is a commuter-rail terminus and it includes stops for the Green Line, which is elevated there, and the Orange Line subway. The T's goal is to take down the elevated line and put the Green Line underground from North Station to its termination point at Lechmere, across the river in Cambridge.

This would follow the depressing of the part of the Orange LIne that runs through Roxbury, completed in May last year. Ridership has since increased by 54 percent.

The most ambitious project is to link Amtrak, Greyhound and other major bus companies, bus ramps direct to Logan Airport, commuter rail, and the subway at South Station near the business district. The Greyhound/Trailways bus station is expected to be completed in five years.

``South Station, when it's completed, will be a major transportation center,'' says Watson of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

Mass transit is important to Boston because of a 1977 freeze by the United States Environmental Protection Agency on the creation of any parking that would be available to the public. Watson says her department supports the ban, because it discourages driving in favor of mass transit, the use of which has grown 20 percent in the last five years.

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