New bus yard plan revealed

November 7, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH

‘Final’ vote stalled by debate

FOREST HILLS—The decade-long saga of the MBTA’s Arborway Yard bus facility planning process has run into yet another last-minute surprise.

The Community Planning Committee for the Arborway Yard (CPCAY) already gave a supposedly final approval vote to a design six months ago that the MBTA said it could and would build.

But at an Oct. 29 CPCAY meeting at the State Lab, the MBTA presented a new design expanding the proposed bus garage/maintenance facility by about one-third of an acre. The design changes finely-tuned noise mitigation promises from the earlier version, and comes with a pledge to turn a strip of green space into a city-owned park—a former sticking point.

CPCAY leaders and Jim Hunt, the city’s environmental chief, pressed for an approval vote that night. But irate residents and CPCAY members refused, saying they needed time to digest the changes and consult with groups they represent. At least one member questioned why they were considering a second “final” vote anyway.

“I think a lot of us are reacting to the fact that nobody likes hardball, up-against-the-wall negotiations,” said CPCAY member Karen Caplan Doherty.

“This is a complex change,” said resident Bill Mitchell, a former CPCAY member. “It’s a secret vote. It’s secret from the community. It’s unconscionable and unfair.”

CPCAY chair Henry Allen pressed for the vote, saying that “in my judgment, after 10 years…we just have to do this tonight.” But he later relented, saying that “forcing a vote” would not be healthy for the community or CPCAY.

While also pressing for a vote, Hunt said he agreed with concern about “the fine print.” He suggested the solution ultimately agreed to: MBTA officials and Hunt pledged to return with more detailed information at the next CPCAY meeting, which may be held on Nov. 19.

The new Arborway Yard facility, at Washington Street and the Arborway, will house a fleet of MBTA buses and replace a temporary facility already located there. As part of the deal, about 8 acres of land will be given to the city for redevelopment and green space.

A new facility was announced 10 years ago as a unilateral plan by the MBTA. With strong backing from Mayor Thomas Menino and other officials, residents were able to form the CPCAY and get design review.

By June, 2007, the MBTA and CPCAY had agreed to a final design and secured construction funding. Then the MBTA suddenly announced that the design was fatally flawed and had to be expanded by more than 1 acre for reasons of practicality and safety.

MBTA General Manager Dan Grabauskas later publicly apologized, saying he himself learned of the change only by reading the Gazette. He said a slightly larger facility would still be preferable, but also promised that if the community wanted to stick to the original design, the MBTA would find a way to make it work.

That’s exactly what the CPCAY told the MBTA to do in its supposedly final vote this spring. But since then, a core group of CPCAY members has met privately several times with MBTA and city officials. Allen said the MBTA has made a compelling case for a redesign and re-vote.

The new design presented by the MBTA featured significant changes—some of them longed-for by critics.

“We believe sincerely this makes a better facility for the MBTA and area residents,” said Charles O’Reilly, the MBTA’s director of infrastructure and engineering.

In the new design, a massive wall surrounding the facility is relocated about 15 feet farther north. That creates much more space for bus traffic, as does shrinking the proposed bus maintenance building.

However, that cuts into a strip of land proposed as green space. On the other hand, the city’s Parks Department has changed its decade-long tune and agreed to own and run the park. That’s because the MBTA is now pledging to pay for construction and fund a trust to maintain it.

But some CPCAY members were skeptical the cash-strapped MBTA would really deliver such a thing, especially because MBTA officials could not cite even a vague budget. O’Reilly said the cost would be covered by the facility’s already approved budget, but did not explain how that was known or why there would be such freed-up money in the project budget. Budget figures are part of the data Hunt said would be presented at the next meeting.

About one-third of the green space would be consumed by a fire lane for the facility. Allen said the fire lane would not be paved, retaining some park-trail type of look.

Mitchell and CPCAY member Dicky Spears revived the idea of giving up the strip of land as green space and turning it into a commercial development instead, in part as a sound buffer for neighbors. They invited Brian McGinley, head of the local development company WCI, to the meeting to comment on that possibility. WCI has worked on many City of Boston and nonprofit office projects. McGinley said the lands looks good for development, but was not aware of the new Parks Department deal ahead of time. He cautioned he had no actual proposal and didn’t intend to “be the spoiler” in the CPCAY process.

Allen called the discussion a “diversion.” Spears replied that, since CPCAY had already voted on a final design once, the entire meeting “could all be considered a diversion, respectfully.”

Mitchell and Spears worked for years on the noise mitigation aspect of the design, which includes special roofing, or “canopies” over part of the bus yard. O’Reilly said the MBTA is committed to “equal to or better” noise mitigation in its new design—even proposing a 112-foot-long roof over one section.

Spears noted that a facility 15 feet closer to residents will be louder, and more noise mitigation will be even more expensive. He and Mitchell questioned whether the MBTA would really pay perhaps millions of dollars more for such items, and whether “equal to or better” will even be technically possible.