Arborway public transit meetings to begin

John Ruch

The state Executive Office of Transportation (EOT) is set to begin a series of meetings to determine public transit improvements in the Arborway corridor currently served by the Route 39 bus, according to the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF).

EOT agreed to run a transit improvement process last year in exchange for the CLF dropping a lawsuit that would have required the controversial restoration of Green Line trolley service between Heath Street and Forest Hills. The process will seek consensus, but doesn’t have to result in an actual project.

CLF recently received a July 2 letter from EOT about the process, said CLF staff attorney Carrie Russell.

“They intend to hold a stakeholders meeting within the next few weeks to discuss options,” she said, adding that it appears that meeting will be invitation-only. One or more “large community meetings” would follow.

“We have been discussing it internally, and we will be making an announcement shortly about the public outreach process, which we intend to begin by fall of this year,” said EOT spokesperson Eric Able.

Meanwhile, local trolley advocates who have a pending lawsuit seeking restoration of the service are in informal discussions with EOT, according to Franklyn Salimbene of the Arborway Committee.

“We’re having some conversations with the folks at EOT,” Salimbene said. “Obviously, our objective is to get them to agree to restoring the service.”

Paul Schimek of Better Transit Without Trolleys (BTWT), a group that supports bus service instead of trolley restoration, said BTWT still seeks to have the existing trolley tracks on Centre and South streets paved over, possibly with former restoration funds. The aging tracks, which would not be reused by any renewed trolley anyway, are surrounded by craters in many spots and have drawn safety complaints. Salimbene has joined the call for paving them over.

Schimek said BTWT has also pushed for bus service improvements. All of the requests have been made through the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services.

“I haven’t heard back…on any of those things,” Schimek said.

The MBTA, which falls under EOT, “temporarily” suspended trolley service in 1985. The 39 bus acts as a replacement in the corridor, though it parallels the Green Line’s E branch for most of its route.

Trolley restoration was one of several transit projects EOT was required to complete as environmental mitigation for the Big Dig under a previous CLF lawsuit. After years of debate and court battles, EOT in 2004 announced that it would simply rewrite environmental regulations so it no longer had to do the trolley restoration, among other projects. It did so, though federal approval is still required and pending.

In 2005, the CLF sued to require trolley restoration, but settled the suit as the approaching regulation change threatened to make the suit moot. The settlement allowed trolley restoration to disappear, but required the state to “commit to and participate in a public process to identify and recommend any agreed upon improvements for the Arborway Corridor.”

There is no requirement that any improvement actually be carried out. The CLF previously said it still prefers trolley restoration, but that some improvement to the existing bus service could qualify.

Russell said it appears that EOT is going into the process with a blank slate.

“They haven’t told us of anything they have in mind,” she said. “It sounds like they’re trying to get input from stakeholders.”

Trolley restoration looks unlikely at this point, both legally and in terms of community controversy. However, the Arborway Committee, a group of local residents who have advocated for restoration since the 1980s, notes that the lawsuit settlement and death of the project came under former Gov. Mitt Romney.

“The idea of the suit was to get the new administration [of Gov. Deval Patrick] to sit up and take notice,” Salimbene said. “I think the governor believes in some of the things that are of interest to us,” he added, citing such issues as environmental justice and smart growth.

He said the Arborway Committee’s recent conversations with EOT are not settlement talks or any other formal or legal process. “I would characterize what we’re doing now as having a conversation,” Salimbene said.

But at this, EOT is simply listening, he said. “They haven’t really raised their issues with us,” he said. “They’re a new administration, and they haven’t really been telling us what they think.”

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