Transit meeting upsets everyone

September 21, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH

The state held a meeting last week to seek “consensus” about transit improvements in the Arborway corridor, and agreement was certainly reached.

But it wasn’t agreement about whether buses or trolleys are better for the corridor. It was agreement that the meeting itself was deeply flawed and might result only in tiny, cosmetic repairs—or nothing at all.

Billed as a “brainstorming” session, the meeting actually imposed multiple, detailed restrictions on the discussion—mainly to take trolley restoration completely off the table. If that restriction continues, local and regional trolley advocates said, legal action may result.

And bus and trolley advocates alike protested the state’s refusal to provide even an estimated budget for transit improvements and inability to define key terms, like its imposed “short- and medium-term” solutions guideline.

One longtime suggestion by bus advocates is now being implemented, the MBTA revealed at the meeting: Global Positioning System (GPS) devices were recently added to most Route 39 buses to closely monitor their schedule adherence. GPS devices will be added gradually to all buses in the fleet, an MBTA official said.

The pro-trolley Arborway Committee announced a discussion of its own. “Rethinking Centre Street” will be a film screening and panel discussion with well-known transit experts, including Jane Holtz Kay, author of “Asphalt Nation.” [See JP Agenda.] Arborway Committee head Franklyn Salimbene said the Sept. 27 event is not specifically pro-trolley and will address larger design issues than transit.

The state Executive Office of Transportation (EOT) held the Sept. 10 meeting at the Connolly Branch Library, focusing on improvements in the Arborway corridor—including S. Huntington Avenue and Centre and South streets in Jamaica Plain—currently served by the 39 bus.

The bus is technically a replacement for Green Line trolley service “temporarily” suspended between Heath Street and Forest Hills in 1985 and the focus of frequent court and community disputes ever since.

EOT, which oversees the MBTA, agreed last year to run a transit improvement process in exchange for the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) dropping a lawsuit that would have required trolley service restoration. The process will seek consensus, but doesn’t have to result in an actual project.

The Sept. 10 meeting was originally supposed to be private and invitation-only to gather early ideas from key “stakeholders,” with a public meeting to follow. However, the meeting was technically opened to the public at the last minute. The Gazette was invited about six hours before the meeting.

The meeting began with a hand-out listing extensive “parameters” and guidelines for discussion that essentially took trolleys off the table. While that was never explicitly stated in the meeting, Wendy Stern, EOT’s undersecretary of planning and urban development, afterwards told the Gazette that is indeed the case.

“For this period of time, yes, it’s not something we’re considering at this time,” Stern said.

That is no surprise, because the state is in the process of rewriting environmental regulations that would require trolley restoration. But trolley advocates say that barring trolleys from discussion at a “brainstorming” session violated the lawsuit settlement.

CLF staff attorney Carrie Russell told the Gazette she agrees with that objection.

“The way I would read that [settlement agreement] is they have to have a full public process…which certainly doesn’t foreclose any options, including restoration of the trolley line,” Russell said. “They can’t tell people what not to say.”

CLF would consider resuming its lawsuit if trolleys remain out of the discussion, Russell said. The Arborway Committee already has its own pending lawsuit seeking trolley restoration, and Salimbene indicated that the lack of trolley discussion could be included in that suit.

Bus advocates, including key members of the local Better Transit Without Trolleys (BTWT) group, were clearly pleased with the focus on improving bus service. Some members suggested a separate, parallel process to discuss trolleys or other “long-term” options.

But activists on both sides complained about the vagueness of EOT’s guidelines for the discussion.

Paul Schimek, head of BTWT, and trolley advocate Michael Reiskind both recalled the Route 39 Bus Task Force, a small group of residents that met with MBTA officials a couple of years ago to suggest bus improvements. Their many suggestions foundered because the MBTA refused to budget any significant money, they said.

And, Schimek and Reiskind said, this new process looks like more of the same, as EOT officials said no budget has been set for improvements and refused to estimate one—even though its guidelines insisted residents be mindful of “financial realities.”

“It would be awfully nice to have a budget,” Schimek said, questioning the point of brainstorming without one. He repeated his recurring question about whether $8 million targeted for trolley restoration in the state capital budget can be transferred to bus improvements. He once again got no answer. The MBTA previously told the Gazette the move is impossible.

While repeatedly insisting that the process focus on “short- and medium-term improvements,” EOT officials acknowledged they had no idea what they meant by that. “A year-ish?” offered EOT planner Kate Fichter, when pressed by bus advocates.

EOT’s guidelines must support “urban design and development goals for the corridor.” But officials had no answer when trolley advocate Tobias Johnson asked what those goals are and who made them.

It also did not help that EOT officials misidentified the Back Bay terminus of the 39 route as Copley Square when it is actually Back Bay Station.

Undaunted, bus advocates offered their ususal many suggestions for improvements. One of them particularly caught Stern’s attention, she told the Gazette after the meeting: a call by BTWT member Anne McKinnon, a traffic study expert, for studies about where people actually want to go by public transit in the corridor.

“Where do people here really want to go?” McKinnon asked, noting the MBTA’s last destination study was 21 years ago. “To try to be making decisions in this corridor with 21-year-old data is ridiculous.”

At least some bus and trolley advocates agreed on a couple of points. One was simply that increased public transit ridership must be the top goal. Stern said any change—even minor ones—to the route would do that, though advocates on both sides were skeptical of that.

There were also comments from both sides that the current compressed natural gas buses are far too loud—and that’s not counting the piercing screech caused by a mechanical problem on many of the buses.

EOT originally indicated it would hold a larger public meeting next month. But the unhappiness about the process has thrown exact plans into doubt, Stern said. Another “stakeholder” meeting could follow instead, and there is no specific schedule.