T wants bigger bus stops sooner

March 6, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH

The MBTA is trying to greatly speed up its Route 39 bus improvement project in the hopes of snagging some of the new federal stimulus money for construction funds. That could mean major changes are coming soon to Jamaica Plain’s streetscape—including 60-foot-long sections of widened sidewalks to act as bus-stop plazas.

“If we’re going to take advantage of some of the stimulus money that’s around, we have to act fairly quickly,” said Erik Scheier, the MBTA official directing the plan, at a March 2 meeting at the Connolly Branch Library. “This is the only funding we’re going to see in a while.”

There’s just one speed bump: Not everyone on the “citizen’s working group”—a community group advising the MBTA on the plan—thinks that such giant curb extensions are a great idea. At the meeting, Scheier acknowl-edged that claims of “consensus” being reached on the sidewalk-extension issue in an official report from the previous meeting were premature and not accurate.

“We may have jumped the gun,” Scheier said.

In addition, the working group so far has reviewed proposed changes for only about one-quarter of the route, which runs between the Forest Hills and Back Bay T Stations.

“It’s not going to be easy to reach consensus” on bus stop issues, Scheier told the group, but urged them to do so within six weeks. He suggested that the group meet very frequently with an eye on construction con-tracts being issued in about six months.

Member Michael Halle noted that there could be some conflicting overlaps with the city’s Centre and South streets redesign project, which is just beginning. The two programs are intended to be in close communication.

Speed has not been a main feature of the Route 39 improvement process, which was supposed to end by No-vember 2007 under a lawsuit settlement agreement, but did not even begin until February 2008. Actual con-struction money also has not been a main feature before.

The Route 39 improvement process is open to all sorts of ideas. But at heart, it is an MBTA plan to re-move and relocate bus stops—with an overall reduction of 25-30 percent of the stops—to make a faster trip. That also involves building the sidewalk extensions—a minimum of 2 feet wider—wherever possible to allow the large buses to pull up to the curb for handicapped accessibility, and to allow for bus shelters at most stops. The goal is to boost ridership.

That plan seems open to tweaking but not to changing altogether. However, similar ideas were controver-sial a half-decade ago when they were proposed as part the plan to restore Green Line streetcar service in the corridor. Traffic congestion and site-specific parking-spot losses were the main complaints.

But the focus on bus stops as the solution was questioned by some members at the meeting.

“You’ve done weird things, the way this meeting [series] has gotten started,” said working group member Jeffrey Ferris. He complained that “not all the information” is available—including how operation and management of the route could be a solution instead.

Dave Carney, the MBTA’s head of service planning, gave a lengthy discussion of route management at the meeting, in response to a request at the last meeting. He focused especially on the problem of “bus bunching”—two or more buses traveling in a pack.

Bunching can have many causes, such as heavy traffic or drivers leaving at the wrong times. Carney ex-plained that the MBTA has been training its inspectors—workers who monitor bus traffic—in the best strategies for dealing with bunching. Holding one bus at a stop for a few minutes is preferred, he said. Running buses express, meaning it skips stops, is a practice they want to end, he said.

But it was unclear how all of this plays out specifically on the Route 39.

“Have you ever done a study on this route on which are the biggest problems in in-bound bunching?” asked group member Michael Reiskind. Carney did not answer directly, discussing driver training instead. Reiskind noted many other operational problems.

Likewise, member Michael Epp asked whether bus drivers have been asked for their efficiency ideas. It seems they have not in any systematic way. “They always tell us they want more time,” meaning break time, Carney said.

Traffic signal prioritization is one operational fix being considered for the route. It involves a device in the bus that can slightly alter a traffic signal cycle to give the bus a better chance for a green light. MBTA officials indicated it would not be a major time-saver on the Route 39.

Another coming innovation is “Countdown,” a text-messaging program that will let subscribing riders know when the next bus is coming based on GPS readings. The Route 39 will get the Countdown feature as a pilot program sometime in the first half of this year, Scheier said.

But the bus stop plan remains the heart of things. At the March 2 meeting, the group reviewed the segment of the route running between Monument Square and the Centre Street/S. Huntington Avenue intersection.

Stops marked for elimination there include Lakeville Road/Parley Avenue and the Myrtle Street/Lester Place stops near the intersection of Green and Centre streets. In addition, the current stop at Centre and Robinwood Avenue would be moved farther south along Centre.

A new set of stops would be created where Pond and St. John streets meet Centre.

Some of these stops are marked for the sidewalk extensions. Officials suggested a 2-foot widening could happen at the Centre and Seaverns Avenue stop in front of Purple Cactus. The stop in front of the Alchemist Lounge at Centre and S. Huntington could be even wider.

There was some discussion of possibly relocating the Centre/Seaverns stop so it would in front of City Feed and Supply, and of moving the stop at Roseway Street and Centre farther south.