Route 39 process still unclear
Changes to local bus stops—including the addition of shelters and the elimination of some stops—could be coming as soon as this summer as part of the Route 39 improvement program, MBTA officials announced at a Feb. 3 meeting at the Curley K-8 School.
The changes, which would affect the entire route from the Forest Hills T Station to the Back Bay T Station, could go into construction even though the planning is not finished, according to MBTA project manager Erik Scheier. It is unclear when and how the planning will wrap up, though Scheier told the Gazette that at least one more public meeting will be held.
The work now will include some type of fixes to the Route 39 stop at the Forest Hills T Station, Scheier told the Gazette after the meeting. Scheier previously told residents at several meetings—including the Feb. 3 meeting—that such work probably could not be part of this plan. But, Scheier told the Gazette, he heard the concerns and would find a way to include the T station.
No public comment period was mentioned at the meeting. Scheier later told the Gazette that any comments can go to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. There is no deadline, he said, but he urged people to send comments within the next few weeks.
As the Gazette revealed last year, the MBTA planned the local route changes meetings of a “citizens working group” that included only Jamaica Plain members. Some of the group’s meetings were publicized, while some were deliberately kept secret. The process remains controversial, with two working group members complaining about it at the Feb. 3 meeting—which was intended to be the first public revelation of the working group’s work—and state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez heatedly criticizing it in a post-meeting conversation with Scheier.
“I personally would have appreciated the T to communicate with us better,” Sánchez told the Gazette immediately after talking with Scheier, adding that his office also was not notified of recent working group meetings. “It’s been an issue with [the media] and it’s been an issue with us, elected officials.”
“We feel it’s really important to get maximum [public] participation and maximum involvement,” Scheier said at the beginning of the meeting. In December, however, Scheier told the Gazette in defending the working group secrecy that “you can’t accomplish as much” with public meetings.
The goal of the process is to reduce the number of stops to speed service, and improve the stops’ conditions to boost ridership. Improvements include making all bus stops handicapped-accessible. Several attendees said the planning seems to meet those goals.
“The work that was done was good,” Sánchez told the Gazette. “It’s going to help the average citizen.”
Controversy over process also did not dominate the meeting—a far cry from previous years when JP was split by heated debate over the possible restoration of Green Line streetcar service through the neighborhood.
“You know, what was impressive about that meeting was, when it got to the public comments, there weren’t strong complaints about the plan and there weren’t strong complaints about the process. Quite the opposite,” said City Councilor Felix Arroyo in a Gazette interview. “That’s not a normal occurrence when it comes to the MBTA and Jamaica Plain.”
The MBTA intends to pay for the work out of a $7.8 million pot of federal stimulus money that would later pay for similar fixes to 14 other bus routes, according to Scheier.
Another confusing point was the MBTA’s ridership data for the route, which was used to help target stops for elimination. Asked by meeting attendees about ridership data in a handout, Scheier and DeNisco could not provide a source or date for the information. Scheier said it is probably from an official MBTA ridership count done in 2005—more than four years ago.
“I would urge that you get 2010 numbers,” said Mission Hill resident Rich Giordano. “You might get surprised.”
The Route 39 improvement process began in 2008 in response to a lawsuit related to the MBTA’s killing of Green Line trolley service on S. Huntington Avenue and Centre and South streets through JP. While it covers the entire Route 39, the process has always been JP-focused. All of the working group members were JP residents (though at least one works in the Longwood Medical Area), and the JP end of the route got the most detailed planning.
Changes were also presented for the Mission Hill/Longwood Medical Area section of Huntington Avenue. The Back Bay end of the route remains totally unplanned.
In JP, the plans call for “bump-outs,” or extended sidewalks, at some stops to allow the bus to pick up passengers without pulling over. The bump-outs also provide easier access for people with disabilities, and allow room for shelters and other furnishings.
Arroyo told the Gazette that handicapped accessibility should be the priority for every stop on the route.
Bump-out locations in the proposal include inbound stops at: Centre and Seaverns Avenue; Centre and St. John Street; Centre and Roseway Street; and S. Huntington and Perkins Street.
The plans also call for “consolidating” bus stops. That means eliminating some stops while creating a new stop in what planners consider a better location.
For example, the Monument Square and Custer Street/Carolina Avenue stops would be eliminated and replaced with two new stops. One of those stops will be inbound at South and Sedgwick Street in front of Curtis Hall, where a wider sidewalk likely will be installed by cutting through the fence there. As for the other stop, the MBTA proposes using a current outbound stop at Centre and South in Monument Square. But at the request of a couple of residents, the MBTA now will consider placing the stop at South and Bardwell Street. It is unclear when and how that stop location will be clarified.
Another consolidation will eliminate the inbound and outbound stops on Centre Street at Myrtle Street/Lester Place and at Lakeville Road/Parley Avenue. They will be replaced by a new set of stops on Centre at St. John/Grovernor Road.
Three sets of inbound/outbound stops are slated for total elimination: South at St. Mark Street; S. Huntington at the Goddard House; and the stops at the Heath Street Green Line streetcar terminus.
Mission Hill resident Alison Pultinas complained about the elimination of the Heath Street stops, saying they are important for people accessing the adjacent Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Some other stops would shift slightly to the other side of an intersection.
The changes would allow for bus shelters to be installed at several stops. Those stops include: South and Sedgwick (inbound); Centre and Seaverns (inbound); Centre and St. John (inbound); Centre and Lochstead (outbound); Centre and Roseway (inbound); S. Huntington and Perkins (inbound); and S. Huntington and Huntington Avenue (outbound).
Some working group members have long protested that simpler and cheaper fixes could be made with bus operations, such as better enforcement of illegal parking in bus stops and better driver training.
At the Feb. 3 meeting, Scheier acknowledged “concern there has been too much focus on infrastructure” and presented some operations changes. They included a program set to begin next month that would allow MBTA route inspectors to access
real-time bus location information via hand-held computers.
There was also a lengthy presented by a state Department of Transportation official about the new “T-Tracker” program that provides GPS-based estimated arrival times for Route 39 buses via the web or cell phone. The still-experimental service is available at www.mbta.com/rider_tools/T-Tracker.
DeNisco said some extreme changes are possible for the Back Bay end of the route, including stopping service at Copley Square or cutting out the Convention Center loop. But that part of the route remains totally unplanned. The working group is now disbanded, though it may meet again “if necessary,” Scheier told the Gazette. He said the MBTA plans to hold a meeting in the Back Bay area about the plan.
The plan also did not include improvements for the widely criticized terminus of the route at JP’s Forest Hills T Station. That stop features cobblestones, old trolley tracks and other obstacles. But, Scheier told the Gazette after the meeting, the Forest Hills terminus will now be included somehow, due to residents asking about it.
“We can go with what we have now,” Scheier told the Gazette, explaining that the planning does not have to be complete for construction to begin. That could happen this summer, as long as city agencies approve it.
The Route 39 improvement process has long been controversial in JP for various issues, including secrecy and internal disputes about what the working group agreed to by “consensus.”
The secret meetings were the elephant in the room at the Feb. 3 meeting.
“As a [working group] member, I’m sorry I missed a number of meetings because I stopped getting e-mails,” said Jeffrey Ferris, the latest working group member to complain about being left out of the meetings. Ferris called it a “strange process” where the MBTA, not the group, set the agenda.
Working group member Michael Halle thanked the MBTA for the process, focusing on its results. He acknowledged it was “not perfect…and some element of the public process, you could argue with.” He said the number of people who “would like [to see] the nuts-and-bolts process is an ongoing question.”
“I appreciate the process, and hopefully we can improve the lives of people who have been waiting for this for a long time,” Halle said. “[There are] a lot of people who can’t get around their own neighborhood…It’s their civil rights.”
“I’m not as happy about the process as some other people,” said working group member Michael Reiskind, calling it “confusing.” He said that several operations-oriented improvements, such as regular monitoring of bus departure times, “haven’t been mentioned.”
Reiskind suggested some other ideas, including installing machines in local stores to let bus riders add value to MBTA Charlie Cards. Arroyo told the Gazette that he likes that proposal, calling it “one of those creative ideas you can get only if you do a community meeting.”
Sánchez said he intends to meet with the Department of Transportation commissioner about several issues, including public process on such plans as the Route 39. But, he added, he is trying to focus on the fact that the state is finally committed to making major transit improvements in JP after years of inattention.
“The product is good,” Sánchez said, explaining he just wants “consistency” in public process.
“The process was kind of iconic of the [bus] service, in terms of [how] it stopped here and it kind of picked up there,” Sánchez said.