SDM Students Learn about Transportation Logistics for the 2004 Democratic National Convention

SDM 2004 Business Trip

MassHighway’s Bill Bent describes the process

By Karen A. Vagts, LFM-SDM Communications Specialist
May 27, 2004

In late July of this year, thousands of delegates, media professionals, and other visitors will descend upon Boston, Massachusetts for the 2004 Democratic National Convention (DNC). For any city, such an event creates an enormous logistical challenge for the local government; this year’s event creates additional concerns because the United States Department of Homeland Security has declared the DNC to be a national special security event.

Bill Bent, MassHighway State Traffic Engineer (third from left), poses with SDM students and faculty after his presentation during the SDM 2004 Business Trip. Photograph by Chara Itoka.

On July 6, 2004, SDM students and faculty received an insider’s view of the security planning that the City of Boston has undertaken for the Convention. Bill Bent, State Traffic Engineer for the Massachusetts Highway Department (or MassHighway as it is known), was the featured speaker for the DNC & Transportation Systems session of the Summer ’04 SDM Business Trip. In his lively and humorous presentation, Bent described the work he and his agency, which oversees most of the state’s major highways, have done to make commuting into Boston during the Convention a safe process.

Due to the Convention’s security status, planning for transportation and related logistics is being supervised by the United States Secret Service. In January, 2004, MassHighway became involved in the planning at the behest of the Massachusetts State Police because one of MassHighway’s roadways, I-93, cuts vertically through downtown Boston, passing right by the Fleet Center, where the Convention will be held. The Secret Service intends to restrict traffic within designated “hard” and “soft” zones around the Center. This mandate requires that traffic on I-93, therefore, be reduced and at times eliminated altogether.

Due to MassHighway’s relatively late involvement in the process, Bent characterizes his agency’s work as more of a response than a plan and that his emphasis has been on accommodating security concerns rather than smoothing traffic slows. In developing the plan, MassHighway also has had to face challenges particular to the City of Boston.

One of these challenges is the Fleet Center’s location. As Bent observed, conventions held in many other cities tend to be located in suburban areas where the site is isolated, parking is plentiful, and access can be controlled with minimal disturbance to the major commuting routes. Boston’s Fleet Center, however, is located in the city’s densely built and complex historic downtown with relatively little public parking. Moreover, the area around the Fleet Center serves as a convergence point for multiple major arteries, interchanges, and bridges as well as the Massachusetts Pike, the Boston Harbor, bridges, access to Logan airport, and dense network of public transportation. Restricting traffic in order to maintain security cannot be done without disrupting Boston’s regular traffic flow.

Another challenge that Bent faces is the decentralized nature of Boston’s city government. Whereas in many other cities, all convention planning would be directed by the Mayor’s Office, in Boston multiple agencies with often overlapping jurisdictions have authority. Thus, Bent must coordinate his efforts with those of other agencies such as MassPort, the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. As an example of the complexity involved, Bent explained that portions of I-93 going through downtown Boston fall under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Highway System rather than MassHighway.

In developing a security-oriented plan for highway traffic during the Convention, Bent and his colleagues set a goal of reducing inbound commuter traffic – both on highways and in public transportation — into Boston by 50%. Four scenarios were considered to achieve this, ranging from keeping I-93 open but being prepared to close it at a moment’s notice to restricting access altogether. The plan that is being implemented will shut down I-93 during the afternoon and evening hours; commuters will be forced to takes detours before they reach the Boston outskirts. In addition, other major roadways into Boston, as well as public transportation in the vicinity of the Fleet Center, will be restricted at these hours. During the morning, when access into the city will be permitted, commuters may be stopped and searched.

Because shutting off access to I-93 will increase traffic on peripheral roads in surrounding communities, Bent has made a point of meeting with the local authorities alongside police and fire departments in these towns to prepare them for the additional traffic they will receive. He also stressed the importance of communicating the plans to commuters as far in advance as possible. Communication tactics range from posting signs on roads well in advance of the affected areas to encouraging area businesses to promote alternate arrangements, such as flexible schedules or telecommuting, for their employees during the Convention.

In telling his story, Bent reminded the SDM audience that effective transportation planning often is less about technology and more about communications and collaboration. During the last week of July, both locals and visitors to Boston will see his planning put to the test.