City Councilor John Tobin this week called for paving over the unused trolley tracks on Centre and South streets, an idea that appears to have unusual consensus support from trolley opponents and advocates alike. The proposal, sent in a letter to city and state officials, was an echo of his controversial 2005 call for tearing up the tracks altogether.
“This really has nothing to do with whether trolleys come back or trolleys don’t come back,” said Tobin, referring to the lingering possibility of Arborway E-line restoration. “This is a public safety issue.”
The concerns relate to the slickness of the smooth metal tracks and their wheel grooves that can catch bicycle tires. Potholes have formed around tracks as well, especially on South Street. Newer tracks lessen these problems with rubber edging.
While a restored trolley wouldn’t use the old tracks anyway, the fate of the existing tracks is loaded with political significance for activists for and against restoration. Former MBTA General Manager Michael Mulhern himself used Tobin’s 2005 proposal as a way to suggest a rapid end to trolley restoration ideas.
Pro-trolley advocates and the MBTA previously opposed tearing up the tracks, arguing that if trolley restoration came, that would mean two large, expensive, disruptive track-work projects. Better Transit Without Trolleys (BTWT), a pro-bus/anti-trolley group, supported tearing up or paving over the tracks.
There now appears to be consensus around the idea of simply paving over the tracks rather than tearing them up. Even Franklyn Salimbene of the pro-trolley Arborway Committee has proposed it as part of a call for improvements to Centre Street.
“If we pave them over to make them some sort of time capsule, I’m happy with that,” said Tobin.
“Just paving them over…would have made sense then [in 2005] as it makes sense now,” Salimbene said, talking about it in terms of a “more aesthetically pleasing environment.”
“Better Transit has been saying for years that we need the street paved over, and that [the tracks are] a major hazard and make the condition of the street worse,” said BTWT’s Paul Schimek. He did caution that more information is needed about whether just paving over the tracks might lead the roadway to decay more rapidly.
MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said he can’t comment until he sees Tobin’s specific proposal.
Tobin’s proposal follows a recent effort by resident Sam Sherwood to collect self-reported track-related accidents. Sherwood said he has received several reports already.
“Virtually everyone I know in JP as a bicyclist has fallen at least once” on the tracks, said Schimek, a bicycling expert. He also recently began collecting track accident reports, noting that, “No one has done a systematic study.”
Tobin said that in 2005, “I spent an entire Saturday in my office returning calls from people who thought [tearing up the old tracks] was a veiled attempt to not bring back trolleys.” He said he still supports trolley restoration in principle, but has strong, possibly insurmountable safety concerns in practice.
Tobin also suggested removing the green “catenary poles” that line the corridor and formerly carried the electric wires for trolleys. He said the poles and the track question are holding up ideas for street improvements in the corridor.
Salimbene noted those poles, like the tracks, can’t be reused even if trolleys come back. But, he said, any sort of paving or pole-removal should only be done in the context of a commitment to more long-term improvement planning for the streetscape, which has recently been discussed by local Main Streets groups and the Jamaica Pond Association. Otherwise, he said, the city might consider its job done with a quick repaving.
But in the short term, Salimbene said, “A skim coat [of asphalt] is a stopgap measure that ought to take place.”
The tracks are owned by the MBTA while the City of Boston controls the street. And the MBTA can’t do much work without the approval of the state Executive Office of Transportation. But, Tobin said, a decision could be made easily.
“I think the T and the city have to come together and say, ‘We’re going to pave them over, simple as that,’” he said.
The MBTA “temporarily” halted Arborway trolley service between Heath Street and Forest Hills in 1985. Legal wrangling over possible restoration has continued since then.
Right now, the state is working on rewriting environmental regulations so it won’t have to restore trolleys to the corridor. But the Arborway Committee recently filed a lawsuit attempting to require the restoration. As part of the settlement of another recent lawsuit, the MBTA agreed to hold public meetings to discuss possible, undefined transit improvements in the corridor.
Tobin said the possibility of a trolley restoration project shouldn’t affect the idea of paving over the tracks. “That’s a big what-if,” he said. “Right now, we’re operating on 22 years of what-ifs.”