MBTA to JP: Run your own bus

November 7, 2008
By

DAVID TABER

MBTA senior transportation planner Greg Strangeways suggested at a Nov. 3 meeting that Jamaica Plain residents concerned about plans to axe the MBTA’s 48 JP Loop bus should set up their own bus route.

Strangeways made it clear that it is unlikely the MBTA will continue to run the route 48 Jamaica Plain Loop bus beyond June 2009 at the meeting at Amory Apartments at 125 Amory Street. While he said using smaller buses to serve the route is a good idea, he also threw a dash of cold water on a proposal that the transit authority modify the route that way. The MBTA does not run small-bus routes, he said.

Colleen Keller, JP Coordinator from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, said the Mayor’s Office would begin to coordinate discussions about setting up a new neighborhood-based route to replace the 48.

“Since T has no plan, we are going to have to figure out the next steps for a replacement service,” Keller told the Gazette.

Amory Apartments is a public housing development for the elderly and people with disabilities. Residents of the development made up the bulk of the over 60 people who attended the meeting. The loop bus, with a route running from Jackson Square down Amory Street past 125 Amory to the Monument in Jamaica Plain Center, is a lifeline for Amory Apartments residents, many said.

Smaller buses would make sense, Strangeways said, because, at around 85 passengers a day on weekdays, ridership on the route is low. Running a full-size bus, the per-passenger subsidy—the cost, per-passenger, above the fare, of running the bus—is $9.23 for weekday runs and over $14 for the bus‘s Saturday runs, he said. The average per-passenger subsidy for the entire bus system is about $1.50.

Also, it is hard to maneuver full-size buses on many of the residential side streets that make up the 48-bus route. Using smaller buses would mean that the route could potentially be re-expanded to include Egleston Square and Washington Street. Stops in those neighborhoods were part of the original 48 route in the 1970s when the route was served by a 24-seat bus, but were later cut. The switch from 24-seat to full-size buses for the route was lamented by many, and the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council (JPNC) has advocated for the return of the 24-seat buses for years.

There is one catch to the smaller bus plan, though: “At this point, [the MBTA doesn’t] do any of this. We only run full-size buses,” Strangeways said. The MBTA does not have the capacity to maintain fleets of different-size buses, which require different parts and different knowledge to maintain, he said.

He said there is precedent for communities managing and running their own bus service, but had few detailed recommendations for how JP residents could set up something similar.

That did not sit well with some.

“Do you expect the old people to buy new legs? We want solutions. We came to listen to you,” one Spanish-speaking 125 Amory St. resident said through a translator.

Strangeways pointed to some examples of community-run buses JP could use as a model, including the Link bus in nearby Mission Hill.

Neighborhood volunteers manage the Link bus, a single ten-seat, handicapped accessible bus that serves 80 passengers a day. It runs 29 trips a day on weekdays and 10 on Saturdays, Link bus coordinator Kay Gallagher told the Gazette. The bus costs $1.50. It has been running since 1978 and is currently funded with support from New England Baptist Hospital and the MBTA. Mission Hill Link Bus Inc. contracts Braintree-based Kiessling Transport to run the bus.

In 2006 it cost $11,000 a month to run, Gallagher said. It is cheaper to run the bus independent of the MBTA, she said, in part because the MBTA is obligated to hire union labor.

The MBTA Service Plan, which proposes cutting the bus service, will not be considered by the MBTA board until December, and the route will not be cut until March 2009 at the earliest, Strangeways said. If there is an effort under way to create a new route, the MBTA would likely be willing to continue service until June 2009 to insure a smooth transition, he said.

A few JP transportation advocates expressed frustration at the short timeframe they are being given.

JPNC member Michael Reiskind, who heads the JPNC Public Service Committee, said that committee had hosted a number of community hearings about problems with the loop bus in 2001. The committee held eight of those forums, discussing issues like bus size; lack of service on Sundays and on weekdays before 9 a.m. and after 4:30 p.m.; and lack of advertising for the route. It would have made sense for the MBTA to engage in serious discussions about improving route service then, he said, before the route was in crisis.

JP resident Michael Halle, who heads the Jamaica Plain Traffic and Parking Committee, suggested that in the future it would be useful for the MBTA to offer more substantive recommendations about how communities could set up and run their own buses, instead of just suggesting the possibility.

Representatives from the Mayor’s office, state Rep. Liz Malia’s office and the offices of City Councilor John Tobin, who represents JP, and at-large City Councilor John Connolly attended the meeting.

Mayor Thomas Menino, Tobin and Connolly had previously sent letters to the MBTA expressing concerns about plans to discontinue the route.

Stewart Spina, who described himself as an amateur mass transit historian, said the 48 bus was one of over a half-dozen “community circulation routes” introduced in different neighborhoods in by the MBTA in the 1970s.

There were others in Somerville, Brookline and Cambridge that have since been discontinued. A similar route in Lynn was taken over and run by the City of Lynn for over 20 years before it was shut down in 2003, he said.

The JP Loop has been one of the longest lasting, he said.

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