Trolleys a popular, economical transit choice

January 7, 2011
By

In his Dec. 17 letter to the Gazette, “Bringing back trolleys would be folly,” James Johnson, no relation to me, perpetuates some misinformation regarding the MBTA’s abandonment of E-Line streetcar service in Boston that requires correction.

Mr. Johnson asserts that public opinion in Jamaica Plain is “evenly divided…at best” and that streetcar supporters do not represent a majority, but he offers no evidence to support that claim. In fact, had E-line restoration been a popularity contest. the service would have begun running years ago. The best polling data available has clearly shown that improved transit service and reconnecting the business district to the subway system enjoys broad and lasting support. A non-binding referendum in 1986 showed 2-1 support and an unscientific Gazette survey roughly 15 years later showed similar results—a remarkable consistency.

Additionally, a detailed survey of the business district in 2001 by the Arborway Committee found that the majority of businesses along South Street either supported the Green Line or were neutral on the issue. This makes sense considering a survey conducted by Centre/South Main Streets concluded that the vast majority of shoppers arrive to the district using modes other than private automobiles.

The author also assails the economics of streetcar restoration, arguing that more pressing matters require limited public dollars. This simplistic perspective fails to tell the whole story. For example, the MBTA could have saved more than $45 million over the past decade had the 39 bus, which is redundant to the E-Line beyond Heath Street, been removed. With higher ridership projections, higher fare-box recovery and lower operational costs, the Green Line requires a lower subsidy per rider and is much cheaper to operate in the long run. Investment in infrastructure pays public dividends long-term—new resources to be used elsewhere.

The irony is that each day brings more news of an American streetcar resurgence. Last week it was a CNN headline story, this week NPR reported that it’s “hard to find a city in America that isn’t planning, proposing, studying or actually building a light rail system.” Meanwhile, the MBTA continues to quietly dismantle Boston’s Green Line by shorting more trains at Brigham Circle and rewriting the schedule listing Brigham Circle as the start for inbound trips.

In the era of the global marketplace, rising energy prices and climate change, American cities must compete for talented 21st-century workers who expect clean, efficient infrastructure and a high quality of life. Fear is an easy sell and the sentiment presented in Mr. Johnson’s letter is defeatist at a time when a can-do attitude is required to rebuild our urban infrastructure sustainably and equitably. To wit, the perspective from behind the windshield should take a backseat.

I am glad the spirit of activism is alive and well in Jamaica Plain and there are conscientious residents willing to take on vested interests to look out for the public good and bring sanity back to main street. They should be applauded.  

Tobias Johnson
Chair, Arborway Committee
Jamaica Plain