T backs down on bus yard plan

October 5, 2007
By

John Ruch

GM: ‘I apologize’

FOREST HILLS—The MBTA has backed off from its demand to expand the proposed Arborway Yard bus facility by more than an acre, a last-minute bombshell announced in June that outraged residents and stalled the entire plan.

The MBTA is still seeking an expansion—now reduced to about a quarter-acre. But the tone has changed since MBTA General Manager Dan Grabauskas recently made some heads roll, tossed out the massive expansion and pledged to work with the community rather than shocking it.

“I apologize,” Grabauskas said last week in a Gazette interview. “The way a less-than-creative solution was communicated was done very poorly.”

Grabauskas said the expansion plan surprised him, too, adding that it was altered and announced by MBTA staff “unbeknownst to me.”

“I found out about the [controversial plan announcement] meeting by reading your paper. No joke,” Grabauskas said.

Asked whether that was likely to happen again, Grabauskas only said, “We have new folks working on [the Arborway Yard] now.”

“We have a high level of trust in the situation now,” said Henry Allen, chair of the Community Planning Committee for the Arborway Yard (CPCAY), the local group that has advised the MBTA for the past nine years on designing the facility. “We have a high level of support and cooperation pledged from the general manager.”

It is still an unexpected expansion plan, and still needs approval from CPCAY, which was scheduled to hold a meeting to review it on Wednesday night after the Gazette’s press time.

But the situation has clearly calmed since June, when Allen joked about shooting the person announcing the shocking bus yard expansion.

Allen declined to comment on the new, scaled-back plan pending its airing at the CPCAY meeting. But he indicated a renewed willingness to compromise.

“I think we knew from the beginning it was a very tight design for them,” he said.

“You never know,” Allen said. “There can always be surprises. We’ve been surprised a few times over the last nine years. But we feel very positive about the support from the general manager.”

Grabauskas offered that support—and an apology—in a private meeting last month with CPCAY members, state Rep. Liz Malia and Jim Hunt, the city’s environment chief, among others. The meeting was held to address the expansion plan controversy.

Depending on community response, the design and construction timeline might not be significantly set back. The expansion was announced at a meeting that was supposed to offer the final, polished rough draft of the plan.

Plan changes

The Arborway Yard facility, at the corner of Washington Street and the Arborway, will house and maintain a fleet of MBTA buses and replace a temporary facility now there.

CPCAY worked for years on a community-approved design, and earlier this year helped secure additional funding required for its construction.

At the June meeting, several last-minute, unilateral MBTA changes to the plan were announced, including the addition of a small parking lot. But the biggest shock was the expansion, which involved moving a huge exterior wall 40 to 50 feet north, cutting deeply into land pledged for green space and community-oriented redevelopment. Among other things, that appeared to violate a legal agreement with the community.

Calling the expansion “slight” and “minor,” MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo at the time offered several reasons for the expansion. The prime reasons were new space for parking buses along the outer wall, and also for towing “dead” buses through the facility. Increased space for buses to turn into a garage was another advantage.

Grabauskas said those concerns remain and that some expansion is still needed for the bus yard to be truly functional—but moving the wall only 10 to 15 feet would do the trick.

The 40- to 50-foot expansion “is now off the table,” Grabauskas said. “I know we do not need to take 50 feet…in order to accomplish what we need to accomplish.”

“The way we were trying to squeeze 10 pounds of potatoes into a 9-pound bag didn’t work,” Grabauskas said of the original plan. But, he added, what also didn’t work was simply proposing “to take a heck of a lot more space” as a solution.

The new plan will also involve reconfiguring buildings within the perimeter and other changes.

“What we have is a proposal that requires some compromise,” Grabauskas said. “I can’t build a facility that doesn’t work.”

A possible benefit, he said, is that it may be possible to move a paved fire lane, currently planned to run through the green space, to a position against the bus yard wall.

Grabauskas also said the MBTA may be willing to partly or fully maintain the green space, which no other agency appears interested in.

“A big part of the green space’s effect as a buffer is that it stays green,” he said. He suggested that maintaining the green space could be a form of recompense to the community for the plan-change shocker, though such maintenance actually was part of that change to the plan.

The MBTA also will offer an alternative plan with no expansion at all, Grabauskas said, adding that he thinks the MBTA will make a “strong case” for expansion.

Apologies

Grabauskas said the MBTA is not only offering revised plans, but an explanation of “how we got to this point where people were panicked—rightfully so—about losing green space.”

He said that, ironically, the shocking plan change happened as the result of a new design review process set up specifically to avoid last-minute surprises.

Grabauskas said that when he was named general manager in 2005, he learned that MBTA project design teams did not include operations and maintenance division reviews in the early stages. That often led to last-minute discoveries of operational problems. He said he reorganized the system to include everyone, and charged operations and maintenance in particular with examining projects closely.

At that time, the Arborway Yard plan was already in the pipeline, but on hold because of the funding issue. While operations and maintenance staff members have been involved in CPCAY, the internal design originated in the old system.

When funding came through, Grabauskas said, the plan became active again, and it turned into the old-fashioned situation of last-minute discovery of practical problems.

“Our bus maintenance folks were brought in and said, ‘My God, what you’ve got here won’t work,’” Grabauskas said.

Then, he said, MBTA staff started making mistakes. One was to go for the quick fix of a major expansion of the design’s footprint.

Another mistake, he said, was communication. MBTA staff informed the CPCAY’s design subcommittee of the changes. Then they declined to present the changes at a full CPCAY meeting, leaving a local resident to give its presentation for them.

“It certainly looked like a bait-and-switch,” though it was not, Grabauskas said.

“Unfortunately, we stubbed our toe here at the 11th hour,” Grabauskas said, adding that he respects “the patience of the CPCAY and the [local] legislators, and I mean that sincerely.”