Can Encore Boston Harbor turn traffic nightmares into a chance to revolutionize transit?
Kristin LaFratta and Steph Solis
June 21, 2019
A pedestrian path winds behind the Gateway Center mall and leads to the entrance of Encore Boston Harbor. Bob DeSalvio stood at that juncture one Saturday morning and looked across the Mystic River at a slab jutting out of the second floor of the Assembly Row T station’s building.
“That is going to be our connection point to the T station,” said DeSalvio, president of the casino. He lights up as he illustrates how the piece would eventually include an elevator to Draw Seven Park and a bridge carrying pedestrians and bicyclists over the river.
Wynn Resorts’ vision of a multi-modal transportation system is already starting to unfold around the $2.6 billion casino. Staying true to its community agreement with Everett, Encore Boston Harbor added a free neighborhood shuttle, free shuttle buses between train stations and the casino, as well as a water shuttle that picks up visitors from the Seaport District and Long Wharf.
Encore spent more than $70 million alone on roadway improvements in Everett and Sullivan Square, DeSalvio said.
Will these changes be enough to prevent a flood of cars, cabs and buses from pouring onto roadways opening day?
Probably not, but urban planners, gaming analysts and some residents say the true test lies in the weeks after the highly anticipated casino opening. Encore Boston Harbor and Everett officials will have to prove to the community — and curious gaming executives around the world — that the casino company will hold up its end of the deal and ultimately transform the transportation system in the region.
Getting to Encore Boston Harbor: By boat, train, car and bus, here are all the ways to get to Massachusetts’ new 5-star casino and resort
“Our objective is to keep you out of your vehicle," said Encore Boston Harbor President Robert DeSalvio.
Casinos often bring more traffic when they open, but the most successful ones contribute to infrastructure improvements in the long run. Wynn Resorts, in its battle for the highly coveted eastern Massachusetts casino license, promised to deliver millions in public transit and road improvements.
It's not unusual for casinos to make large-scale investments if it means they can get the green light to open a casino in a profitable location, said Alan Woinski, president of Gaming USA. The most successful ventures invest in projects that help their customers access the casino and win over skeptical neighbors.
“Everybody always talks about, casinos have to be good neighbors,” Woinsk said. “Well, they do because obviously the initial thought on casino is always negative.”
Wynn Resorts’ future in Massachusetts was put into question after sexual misconduct allegations surfaced against founder Steve Wynn. The company was slapped with a historic $35 million fine and an oversight condition after investigators found the company hid details about the allegations from Massachusetts regulators. CEO Matt Maddox, Wynn’s protégé, was slapped with a $500,000 fine and mandated to leadership and sensitivity training.
The company briefly considered a sale to MGM International, confusing elected officials and gaming experts as news of talks broke less than a month away from Encore’s scheduled opening, but Wynn officials ended up paying the state’s fine and focusing on the June 23 opening.
‘People already have road rage. It’s awful’
The biggest criticism Encore skeptics have now is that the casino will contribute to the region’s traffic woes -- already among the worst in the country.
A report by the Lower Mystic Valley Regional Working Group estimates that planned residential and commercial growth in the areas of Everett, Somerville and Boston could lead to 27,000 new households and 55,000 new jobs, with Encore making up “just a fraction of potential travel demand.”
“Collectively, this future growth could meet 5 percent of the state’s housing needs and accommodate 20 percent of projected statewide employment from 2010-2040, but not without challenges,” the report’s key findings state. “That much growth could add almost 500,000 new daily trips to and from the study area by 2040 (a 34 percent increase from 2010), straining the transportation system in the future.”
Everett is already feeling the strain. The 3.7-square-mile city of 46,000 just north of Boston is caught in the middle of an often nightmarish commute to Boston. Working-class families driving their children to school or commuting to work sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic alongside motorists from northern Massachusetts trying to cut through to get to Charlestown without paying the Tobin Bridge tolls.
Recent construction projects on the Tobin Bridge and the North Washington Street Bridge, as well as Encore’s own construction on lower Broadway, have only compounded the problem.
Michele Seward, a mother of two, watches the traffic lights change five, six, sometimes seven times before her car moves past an intersection. She drops off her children at school, lugging heavy backpacks and sports equipment into class, before driving back to her house a mile away. From there, she parks her car and runs to Wellington station to catch a bus to her job in Cambridge.
“It makes me really, really angry,” Seward says. “I would say within the last 8 months, it’s gotten really, really bad.”
Her husband drives into work to the Seaport District. It took him two hours to get home the other night, Seward said. She has heard about some of the casino’s transportation improvements. Like other residents stuck in the morning commute, she worries the casino patrons won’t heed the call to leave their cars at home.
“Our streets, our infrastructure cannot handle that much more amount of traffic,” Seward said. “The pollution it’s going to cause. The fights it’s gonna cause. People already have road rage. It’s awful.”
Wynn Resorts officials, bracing for thousands of cars in Everett, say don’t drive to Encore Boston Harbor on opening day
Wynn Resorts officials said they don't expect a long-term traffic impact, but they still foresee thousands of cars an hour at its peak.
The crippling traffic in Everett and Greater Boston is not new, but it is getting worse. Recent polls from MassINC found that 30 percent of statewide workers have considered leaving the region altogether due to traffic, and nearly 72 percent reported emotional impacts from the daily grind.
Most casinos bring a flurry of gamers, dignitaries and curious onlookers when they open. Everett city councilors say the traffic will worsen for a couple of weeks, then die down.
Everett Police Chief Steven Mazzie, who met with casino leaders and other law enforcement officials, compared the panic over traffic to the craze leading up to Y2K.
“The computers didn’t crash, the world didn’t end, the stock market was fine,” said Mazzie, referring to the early morning of Jan. 1, 2000. “I believe as we move forward after opening day, everything’s going to be just fine.”
An opportunity to revolutionize transit
Mazzie and dozens of public safety officials spent months with Encore planning the opening. They pushed the company to set its opening at a time when the Greater Boston area is least traffic-packed, which ended up being Sunday morning.
Encore Boston Harbor enlisted the help of 400 officers from Massachusetts State Police, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and local police to direct traffic. They’re monitoring traffic near the highway exits around Greater Boston leading to the casino and directing traffic for shuttle buses and ride-hailing services heading down Broadway.
Then there are the ultimate optimists: the minds behind Encore’s $20 million transportation investments in Everett. DeSalvio and Jim Folk, the company’s head of transportation, say their travel plans to bring employees and visitors to the towering resort at lower Broadway show only a glimpse of the company’s plans to revolutionize transit in the area.
“It just can work, if you give them a convenient option. We can get people to try to change their pattern a little bit,” DeSalvio told MassLive earlier this month.
Leading up to the casino opening, the company spent $70 million on road improvements and millions more on transportation alternatives to fulfill its obligations under agreements with Everett and Boston.
Encore widened parts of the main thoroughfares near the casino, adding left-turn lanes near the casino to reduce bottlenecking. The company also added shuttle busses that take visitors directly to the casino from nearby train stations, built a dock and offered a water shuttle to pick up people from Boston’s Seaport District and Long Wharf.
The company helped connect a path near the city’s Gateway Park to the casino and the Alford Street Bridge, leading to Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood.
Under its agreement with Boston, Encore also developed a redesign plan at Sullivan Square, where an Orange Line stop meets a jammed Charlestown intersection. Casino officials repainted crosswalks and added walkways to make walking past Sullivan Square safer, DeSalvio said. They connected traffic signals in Everett and Sullivan Square to the Boston Transportation Department’s command center, so signals can be timed better across neighborhoods.
“The fact that we figured out a way to mitigate all of our additional traffic that would come to the property and do that, in cooperation with many of the agencies that are involved, state agencies that were involved, all the way through, took a very significant effort. And it's costing us significant dollars,” DeSalvio says.
Perhaps the most crucial changes are those that have yet to be completed.
Encore Boston Harbor filed permits in May with state environmental regulators to build a 12-foot-wide bridge for pedestrians and bicyclists over the Lower Mystic River.
The bridge would not only give casino patrons and nearby residents a straight shot to the Orange Line at Assembly, but would also piece together parts of the 10-mile Northern Strand Community Trail. That path, also known as the “Bike to the Sea Trail,” connects the cities of Everett, Malden, Revere, and Saugus. An extension of the bike trail is already underway to allow bikers and walkers to reach the Mystic River and take Encore’s new water shuttles, planners say.
Encore Boston Harbor approved to serve alcohol until 4 a.m. on casino floor
Encore Boston Harbor asked the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to serve alcohol until 4 a.m., while most establishments across the state finish serving at 2 a.m.
Despite the recent projects, biking advocates say that there are troubling gaps for cyclists in the area surrounding the casino, including Route 28 over the Mystic River and the roadways connecting Route 99 to Sullivan Square.
“There aren’t that many crossings of the Mystic and the ones that are, are not generally pleasant to walk or bike along,” says Tom Lamar, the new chairman of the Somerville Bicycle Committee.
“You have some OK, not great options, but in terms of potentially providing a full off-street or fully protected route to downtown, you’d also need some other projects, in addition to the bridge, to finish off the gap,” Lamar said. The bridge to Assembly, he added, is “an absolute key portion of that.”
Plans are also underway for improvements to Draw 7 Park along the waterfront to make it a more pedestrian-friendly area and connection point between the park and Assembly Row station. Otherwise, pedestrians at the park would have to walk around the train station’s property to reach the entrance on the other side.
“The critical links are here, going over the water and then that piece over the MBTA,” DeSalvio said during his walk, staring at the station from across the Mystic River. “We’re close. We’re close.”
Connecting to the MBTA
Everett officials and Encore executives agree on several future transportation projects, including the suggested extension of the Silver Line from Chelsea to Encore in Everett, supported by the Lower Mystic Valley Regional Working Group. Officials say that connection would link Chelsea to Encore, and could be extended to reach the Orange Line at Sullivan Square.
The transit proposal would also connect the MBTA directly to Encore and its neighboring undeveloped properties. Wynn Resorts purchased homes along lower Broadway and envisions developing the area to create an “entertainment district,” according to DeSalvio. The parcels could be used to host hospitality space, convention centers or other new developments, he says — all of which could sit just a T stop away on the Silver Line.
Betting on public transportation, however, presents a risk for the Boston-area casino.
Critics need look no further than the two recent train derailments. The Red Line derailment last week — the 17th in the past two years alone — sparked a traffic nightmare across the South Shore as passengers jumped on shuttle buses that took hours to reach downtown Boston.
In a social media uproar during the derailment, passengers shared screenshots of Uber and Lyft rides that cost more than $100 to travel a few miles, while lambasting the T for upcoming fare hikes.
“I would say we have been in crisis mode,” Transit Matters Chief Operating Officer Jarred Johnson said at a recent Gen2Gen panel in downtown Boston.
Johnson, an Oklahoma City native and Boston transplant, blames the crumbling T infrastructure on underinvestment and misguided approaches. He argues that the state built out commuter rail lines — trains Johnson critiques as being stuck in the “1950s Mad Men” era — while the MBTA neglected its inner core, setting the stage for regular mechanical problems.
Experts predict that if left unaddressed, growing populations will cause the ongoing transit problems to compound and become worse.
In a news conference on Wednesday, DeSalvio acknowledged the T has its shortcomings. Still, he insisted the upcoming changes will help make public transit more reliable. He pointed to the MBTA’s fiscal control and management board’s approval of the $18.3 billion capital program being used to add new cars on the Orange Line and Red Line.
“I know that they will put the resources needed behind that capital plan to make sure that it gets done as quickly as possible,” DeSalvio told reporters. “They have serious intentions. I think they can pull it off.”
Accelerated construction, congestion pricing, dedicated bus lanes: advocates in the region have their own ideas about what it takes to cut traffic and improve public transportation.
Johnson proposes big-picture changes, like the introduction of emissions-free electric trains, and regional rail with frequent headways to replace a commuter rail system that functions around the inflexible 9-5 work day. He is also a proponent of many more buses.
When buses act like trains
Everett was one of several cities to pilot a Bus Rapid Transit program, creating dedicated bus lanes intended to improve speed and service. The city’s transportation planner said the program is a massive success, and will continue this summer with the addition of two bus stations in Everett Square.
“A bus rapid transit system, when it has all of the features together, essentially functions like a metro at the surface, at grade. And can be built out at a fraction of the cost and at a fraction of time that it takes to build up a rail system,” says Michael Kodransky, a director of U.S. and global initiatives at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
Kodransky, a self-appointed “global sustainable transport hustler,” agrees that Massachusetts is experiencing a regional transportation crisis. He supports the expansion of fast bus service, and says walkability has proven to be a key indicator on whether people will actually choose to take buses or public transit.
Kodransky believes the presence of Encore has been a catalyst to transportation reform.
“I think what we’re seeing in what the casino is spurring is greater regional planning, which is requiring the institutions that oversee transportation across the region to work together to innovate internally and how they operate,” Kodransky adds.
The casino opening prompted Everett to extend its bus-only lanes to lower Broadway. DeMaria recently shared renderings of what the bus lanes would look like.
For Everett residents and drivers like Seward, proposals to remove more car lanes are of little comfort.
“My kids can’t be walking to and from school with two or three bags of sports equipment,” Seward says. “It’s my car, my taxes.”
North Shore residents echoed her concerns on Facebook when the mayor shared renderings of a bus-only lane near the casino.
“Traffic is getting worse in Everett, and once the casino opens it will likely be worse,” Facebook user Marvin Mendez commented. He asked the city to consider a train station to get residents around faster.
But city and company officials affirm that accommodating buses will ultimately reduce traffic as people learn about the free shuttle buses. DeSalvio pointed to the new Neighborhood Runner, which launched earlier this month. The runner has a stop at Rivergreen Plaza Drive and has picked up Everett residents who work at the casino — proof, he says, that when an alternative meets people where they are, it works.
While transportation experts interviewed by MassLive largely support Encore’s projects, they dismissed some ideas as useless, like DeSalvio’s push to create a commuter rail stop on property behind the resort.
“Putting a commuter rail stop there wouldn’t do much. That was something we didn’t recommend ... the ridership was very tiny,” said Eric Bourassa, the transportation director for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council who contributed to the most recent Lower Mystic Regional Working Group’s transportation report.
Still, the grand vision by DeSalvio and company runs somewhat parallel to that of officials in Everett: create a thriving entertainment district on lower Broadway and improve the city. The goals are mutually beneficial, and if successful, could become a model for other metropolitan areas.
“This is the first resort built kind of in an urban core, and other countries were fascinated with how that was going,” Wynn Resorts spokesman Michael Weaver said. “They realize that you're going to have to create vehicular connectivity and public transportation connectivity to a resort, if you put one in Yokohama, or Tokyo, or Osaka.”
Encore Boston Harbor is seen in Everett, Massachusetts, Wednesday, May 22, 2019. MGM Resorts International says it will no longer pursue buying Encore Boston Harbor from Wynn Resorts.
Encore Boston Harbor is seen in Everett, Massachusetts, Wednesday, May 22, 2019. MGM Resorts International says it will no longer pursue buying Encore Boston Harbor from Wynn Resorts.
Mayor DeMaria says he has “complete confidence” that Encore will continue to play a role in developing lower Broadway. Echoing his transportation planner, the mayor adds that the projects will depend largely on transportation upgrades.
Officials like Everett Transportation Planner Jay Monty and gaming analysts agree it will take at least a month for the city to understand the pressures a globally marketed casino will have on the Greater Boston Area’s fragile transportation system.
Still, Monty believes Wynn Resorts has done “an awful lot” to fund less glamorous work.
Subsidizing more Orange Line pick up times on the weekends or funding much-needed roadwork sound less flashy than, say, deploying four luxurious water taxis on Boston Harbor. But Encore’s collective transportation efforts ease burdens that would otherwise fall on the city and state, something Everett officials are keenly aware of.
Just how effective a master travel plan that relies on an unreliable MBTA system and some of the most congested roadways in the country can be, however, remains to be seen.
“Overall I think, really, we have the same vision,” says Everett Transportation Planner Jay Monty. “This is something that’s sort of evolved over the past few years and it doesn’t stop with just the work [Encore has] done to this point.”