State suggests Route 39 changes

March 7, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH


Courtesy Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation
Proposed improvements include eliminating some stops, possibly including these examples

The MBTA’s Route 39 bus service would get major fixes—including the removal of many stops and construction of wider curbs/sidewalks at some stops—under a proposal announced by state transportation officials at a Feb. 25 meeting.

The fixes are intended to speed service and boost ridership on the route, which runs between the Forest Hills and Back Bay T Stations through central JP. They could result in significant streetscape changes along Centre and South streets, including large “bump-outs” of the sidewalk into the street.

Many details remain unclear, but it appears the state Executive Office of Transportation (EOT) will move forward quickly. An advisory committee of community residents will be formed within the next couple of months to review at least the bus stop consolidation/removal issue, EOT officials said at the meeting at the Agassiz School. EOT oversees the MBTA.

More than 20 years ago, the 39 route became a replacement for “temporarily” suspended Green Line trolley service down S. Huntington Avenue and Centre and South streets. Multiple lawsuits since then—including one still pending—have sought to force trolley restoration, and the issue remains unsettled.

But current political momentum clearly favors bus-only service, and even trolley advocates at the meeting appeared to approve of most proposed Route 39 fixes, at least as short-term patches.

“I’m very pleased with what I’ve heard,” said Sara Wermeil, a member of the local group Better Transit Without Trolleys (BTWT), at the meeting, echoing comments of many bus advocates. “I really think you’re on the right track. Many of these suggestions have been made for so long.”

Franklyn Salimbene of the pro-trolley Arborway Committee said he liked parts of the proposal that essentially repeat ideas from trolley restoration planning several years ago.

“I supported them when we were talking about them as streetcar improvements,” Salimbene said. But, he added, “We actually believe there is no better service without Green Line service to [Forest Hills] in Jamaica Plain.”

Bus and trolley advocates alike had many lingering questions and suggestions beyond the EOT’s proposal. They include the lack of a specific timeline or budget; the lack of recent transit data about the route; representation and scope of the advisory committee; a variety of other possible short-term changes; and, of course, the long-term mode of public transit in the corridor.

Wendy Stern, EOT’s undersecretary for planning and program development, set most of these questions aside for some undefined future discussion.

“We recognize that what we’re proposing tonight won’t satisfy everybody,” she said, explaining EOT is focusing on short-term fixes that can be done with little money.

The meeting was a follow-up to another JP meeting held by EOT last September. That meeting was controversial, in part for being even more vague. Since then, EOT and other transportation officials have worked quietly on the Route 39 fixes. In general, most of the about 50 attendees of last month’s meeting appeared happier to have specific proposals on the table.

The entire planning process is the result of the settlement of a lawsuit filed against the state by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), an environmental nonprofit group. There is controversy about whether the bus-only focus of the process violates the letter and spirit of the lawsuit settlement agreement. Even EOT officials gave conflicting interpretations of its language at the meeting when pressed by state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson.

But the CLF itself finds the process acceptable, staff attorney Carrie Russell told the Gazette.

“At this point, there is nothing that would bring us back into court,” Russell told the Gazette, adding that EOT is “moving forward in good faith” and allowed anyone at the meeting to speak freely.

“I’m glad to see the Executive Office of Transportation is looking to identify solutions that they actually intend to implement,” she said.

The CLF lawsuit was intended to require trolley restoration, which the state previously agreed to do as an air-quality mitigation of the Big Dig highway project. The state is in the process of having environmental regulations re-written to get out of the trolley requirement, replacing it with parking lot and commuter rail projects instead. That would render the lawsuit moot and led the CLF to settle it.

The settlement agreement requires a community process to seek consensus on public transit improvements in the corridor. EOT already violated the agreement in terms of missing the deadline for completing the process. On the other hand, EOT’s Route 39 fix-up proposals outperform the settlement agreement, because the agreement does not require the state to actually propose or carry out any improvement project at all.

Proposals

The Route 39 bus is the second-busiest route in the MBTA system, after the Silver Line. But over the years, it earned a reputation for poor service and suffered steadily declining ridership, according to the handful of official counts. The most recent statistics showed a 17 percent ridership loss between 1997 and 2005, though it is unclear if the current trend is down or up.

Unscientific counts and the Gazette’s own experiences have found that service is significantly more timely since current MBTA General Manager Dan Grabauskas took the helm in 2005—possibly because he reportedly reversed artificially low staffing levels that may have affected the route. [see related article.]

But the bus still regularly takes much longer than the scheduled 35 minutes or so to run the length of the route, particularly at rush hour.

A main goal of EOT’s proposals is speeding up the bus’s route running time by about 5 to 7 minutes. That doesn’t sound like much, but EOT officials said it is significant for a bus line.

One official said that, by standard industry models, it would result in a ridership increase of about 6 percent. Some meeting attendees were wary of that kind of ideal-world calculation.

Other big goals are meeting handicapped-accessibility requirements—currently unmet on about half of the route’s stops—and adding bus shelters and seats to more stops.

A major part of the proposal is cutting 25 to 35 percent of the 63 stops on the route so that the bus doesn’t have to stop as often. Of course, that also means longer walks to find a bus stop. EOT officials acknowledged that stop cuts are often controversial.

The community advisory committee will oversee the process of cutting stops. There will also be meetings with abutters of bus stop areas.

Another speed-improving tactic would be “optimizing” the roughly 40 traffic lights the bus encounters on the route. That means making sure all the lights are coordinated with each other, and installing “signal prioritization” technology that allows buses to make a green light last longer so they can get through an intersection more easily.

Officials from the Boston Transportation Department attended the meeting and said they are on board with the traffic light planning. However, questioned by residents, they acknowledged that the traffic lights in the area are not currently networked in a way that would allow for signal prioritization.

The proposal to build sidewalk bump-outs into the street at various stops is aimed at both improving trip times and handicapped accessibility.

The 60-foot buses that run the route are supposed to pull over completely so that all three doors meet the curb at the stop. That allows access by riders with disabilities, and helps all passengers to get on or off quickly.

But buses rarely pull over all the way for a variety of reasons, including stops that are too short or bad curbs; cars parked in stops; and, apparently, bus driver choice.

The EOT proposes building bump-outs several feet wide and 60 feet long. Buses could pull up to them without pulling over at all, quickly and easily getting flush with a curb of the right height. The wider sidewalks would also provide room for bus shelters.

Officials said they are not recommending specific stops for bump-outs at this point, though they indicated they want some on Centre/South. One would be built as a pilot project to test the idea.

Bump-outs would be shorter than the 80 to 100 feet currently needed for the buses to pull over. Along with stop consolidation/removal, the proposal could result in a net gain of on-street parking spaces for private cars in the corridor, which EOT officials indicated is another goal of the project.

Public transit issues in the corridor are regularly debated as bus-versus-trolley. But as EOT officials explained the Route 39 proposal, it appears that in practice, the 60-foot buses have similar problems to those critics worried that trolleys would create: blocking traffic; trouble getting through traffic; “bunching” of vehicles; consuming large stretches of the street for stops.

And EOT’s proposed solutions are similar to those once proposed for trolley restoration. They may also trigger similar controversies.

Forced by another lawsuit to begin trolley restoration planning several years ago, the MBTA convened a community advisory committee. Its first—and, as it turned out, only—work was planning consolidation of stops, construction of bump-out sidewalks and placement of shelters and other street furniture.

EOT officials did not mention the work of that group, known as the Arborway Rail Restoration Project Advisory Committee (ARRPAC), and it is unclear if there will be any direct use of those old materials.

At the time, some local business owners complained that proposed trolley/bus shelters would block views of their storefronts. That could be an issue again on Centre/South streets, where passengers at most stops currently must huddle in doorways or under awnings in bad weather.

ARRPAC’s proposed “trolley plazas,” or bump-outs, were also controversial—especially as possible hazards to bicyclists. Jeffrey Ferris, a BTWT member and owner of South Street’s Ferris Wheels bike shop, was one critic wary of the design at the time, noting it would squeeze riders between traffic and a high curb.

Ferris told the Gazette that idea of bump-outs for the bus is “somewhat less of an issue” because trolley tracks wouldn’t be part of the design. (The decaying old tracks on Centre/South cause frequent bike crashes, though trolley advocates say new versions would be much safer for bikes.) But some wide bump-outs around Boston are dangerous, he said.

“As a cyclist safety issue, I think an appropriate bump-out could work,” Ferris said. “Things that come out too far can be a hazard.”

But Ferris also questioned the need for bump-outs at all, suggesting that drivers could simply pull over all the way as mandated. He also worried that cars would park illegally along the bump-outs, blocking buses and other traffic.

“I’m not sure there really would be a benefit,” he said.

EOT official Eric Scheier at the meeting acknowledged possible challenges, saying that bump-outs “aren’t commonly done on this kind of narrow, congested corridor.”

In any case, EOT will have to do something to improve handicapped accessibility under a recent legal agreement with activists.

Besides the big proposals, EOT officials also listed relatively recent and ongoing improvements to the bus route. They started with the introduction of the high-capacity, compressed natural gas-powered buses to the route five years ago.

Global Positioning System (GPS) devices have been added to all of the buses, which eventually will allow a control center to monitor and direct their driving on the route in real time. However, details and timelines on the GPS control were fuzzy, despite repeated questions from BWTW member Jon Truslow. GPS information could also provide real-time bus arrival information in high-tech bus shelters, officials said.

In smaller improvements, the MBTA is conducting “courtesy training” for bus drivers; has posted full transit system maps in the buses; and has four inspectors driving the route every day to bust cars parked in bus stops.

EOT also said that there will be a “Route 39 Passenger Survey and Intersection Congestion Study,” though it remained unclear who would conduct them and when.

Larger ideas—including “further improvements to Green Line service”—mentioned by the public at the September meeting were briefly mentioned as things that could be discussed in the unspecified future.

Concerns

Meeting attendees had many other suggestions and concerns of their own for both the short and long terms.

Trolley advocates still want trolleys, of course. Franklyn Salimbene of the Arborway Committee—which has a pending lawsuit seeking trolley restoration—noted that the Silver Line bus route already has many of the proposed features in place and the added benefit of running in an exclusive tunnel, but has service that is steadily declining in schedule adherence, according to recent reports.

The Route 39’s schedule problems are “not an issue in this community…It’s that you’re running bus traffic into the teeth of downtown traffic every day [on the Back Bay end],” Salimbene said, adding that can never be fixed.

BWTW member Paul Schimek cited bus “bunching”—two or more buses traveling very close together—as key issue in speeding service short-term. Transit officials attribute bunching to buses getting stuck in traffic. But bus and trolley advocates alike said they have seen buses leave the ends of the line in bunches simply because no one was there to direct them.

“There’s no question whatsoever that drivers develop their own route,” Sen. Wilkerson told the Gazette, noting that such bunching could be fixed with a couple of employees rather than high technology.

Another issue is the so-called Belvedere Loop—a dogleg in the route where, instead of running straight to Back Bay Station, it circles around the Prudential Center and Copley Square. Schimek suggested that removing the loop alone could speed the trip time by 4 minutes.

Other ideas included: running some express buses; creating bus-only lanes on Huntington Avenue; putting the route on the main MBTA system map to publicize it; publishing a schedule that is honest about today’s slower trips; and removing cobblestones and old trolley tracks from the 39 stop at the Forest Hills T Station.

Bus advocates constantly pushed for a specific budget and project timeline, but still didn’t get them. Russell said the CLF wants a clear timeline as well.

“We’re not going to do the entire corridor at once,” Stern said. “In terms of paying for it, that’s something we have to figure out.”

Advocates also called for a variety of studies, suggesting it is difficult to plan knowledgably without them.

One suggestion was before-and-after ridership surveys to see what, if anything, actually makes more people take the bus. The MBTA currently counts passengers only once every several years.

BWTW member and professional transportation consultant Anne McKinnon repeated her call for a study of where riders actually want to go, noting that existing studies are more than 20 years old.

“We are running a [trolley line] substitute bus [and] calling it a permanent bus” without knowing what kind of route is actually needed or wanted today, she said.

Bus advocates have suggested that the route might be better split into or joined by various new routes.

The Route 39 parallels the surviving part of the Green Line’s E branch service for much of its route. One notable gap in the discussion is what something like the predicted 6 percent bus ridership boost would do to Green Line use.

State Rep. Liz Malia called for a bigger-picture view to make sure improvements are integrated with traffic planning for the massive Forest Hill Station area redevelopment.

Russell noted that the entire CLF lawsuit revolved around air-quality issues, adding that she wants to see more pollution-reduction benefit analysis of the proposal.

Wilkerson told the Gazette that route-specific planning in general can be too narrow.

“It really does militate against connectivity of the system,” she said. “It’s inefficient, is my polite word for it.”

The forthcoming advisory committee also drew questions. EOT officials said the agency will appoint 10 to 15 community members and indicated its only jurisdiction will be discussing bus stop consolidation/removal. Some attendees suggested the committee would want to discuss other route issues.

Wilkerson questioned whether it would represent only JP people or neighborhoods along the entire route.

“When they do the advisory committee, I hope it’s more representative of the ridership than the people in the room [at the meeting],” Ferris told the Gazette. He noted that many advocates involved in the transit discussion are not regular users of the route, and that the meeting attendees in general were nowhere near as diverse as the route’s regular ridership.

Lawsuit

Another issue was compliance with the lawsuit settlement agreement, which calls for a community process about “public transporation improvements” in the corridor.

Trolley advocate Alan Smith asked EOT officials whether they interpreted the agreement as describing a bus-only discussion. Stern twice answered, “Yes.”

“There is no specific direction that mandated we look at anything else,” Stern said.

Wilkerson, who is also a lawyer, disagreed. “If it isn’t specific, it means everything is on the table,” she said, suggesting that what EOT really means is, “‘That’s our decision and we’re sticking to it.’”

EOT attorney Dan Collins introduced a new angle—that EOT can’t discuss trolleys because of the pending trolley restoration lawsuit. But pressed by Wilkerson, he clarified that he only meant for that specific public meeting, not the entire public process.

“I’m not saying at the moment [the process is] exclusively talking about bus service,” Collins said.

Russell read the settlement language aloud at the meeting and later told the Gazette, “There’s nothing limiting it to buses.”

But, she added, CLF is satisfied with the process at this point.

“I did think the Executive Office of Transportation did do a good job of listening to a wide range of public comments,” she said. “It doesn’t seem to me the conversation is over.”

Best of JP 2014