Trolley comeback killed by court

Green Line trolleys won’t be running through central Jamaica Plain anytime soon—if ever—since a court quietly tossed out a lawsuit seeking their return in January, the Gazette has learned.

The end of the local Arborway Committee’s lawsuit finishes a trolley controversy that once consumed JP. But debate may linger in plans for the Arborway Yard bus facility, where the Arborway Committee still wants space reserved for trolley storage in case public opinion swings toward trolleys again. That land is slated to go for community-approved redevelopment.

The lawsuit’s end “makes the restoration of the Arborway streetcars much more difficult, but still not impossible or improbable,” said Arborway Committee chair Tobias Johnson. “We recognize at this point it’s a much longer-term process.”

Green Line trolleys, or streetcars, ran for a century on rails down S. Huntington Avenue and Centre and South streets between Heath Street and Forest Hills. In 1985, the MBTA “temporarily” suspended the service at Heath Street for maintenance reasons. The Route 39 bus acted as replacement service.

A previous lawsuit required trolley restoration by 1997 as an environmental mitigation for increased car pollution from the Big Dig. Planning happened fitfully in the 1990s and early 2000s as the deadline was missed.

Public opinion at first was largely pro-trolley, but split over the years into heated controversy. Critics, including Mayor Thomas Menino, said trolleys would block traffic and emergency vehicles, and would endanger bicyclists and pedestrians. Supporters called that fear-mongering and said trolleys would be cleaner, faster and more convenient than buses.

Meanwhile, the state kept trying to get out of trolley restoration and finally succeeded by rewriting an environmental regulation in 2006. Instead, it began planning Route 39 bus improvements, and the city paved over the old trolley tracks.

The Arborway Committee filed suit over that move in 2007, alleging it violated a contract—the original legal agreement requiring trolley restoration. But there is a three-year time limit on filing that kind of lawsuit. In 2009, a court ruled that if there was any contract violation—a point left undecided—it happened when the original deadline was missed in 1997, so the Arborway Committee was suing too late. An appeals court affirmed that decision in January.

“We have decided not to appeal” the decision any further, Johnson said. In the short term, he said, he mourns the loss of JP trolleys as “the definition of disinvestment” in public transit.

The only regional light rail project planned for the next 25 years, he noted, is a Green Line extension to Somerville, which was also required by the same Big Dig agreement.

But long-term, he said, the Arborway Committee still hopes for trolley restoration under different leaders and public pressure for alternative transportation.

“We know the mayor will not be the mayor forever,” said Johnson. “We just don’t have a mayor in Boston who supports public transit.”

“We hope the city and state will eventually see the light,” he added. “The future can only get better.”

For that reason, Johnson said, the Arborway Committee wants trolleys to remain part of the plan for the Arborway Yard, the long-delayed bus facility at Washington Street and the Arborway. If that plan gets federal funding this year, about 8 acres of the site will go for community-approved redevelopment.

The plan also includes eight-tenths of an acre set aside for trolley parking in the event of restoration. Otherwise, that land will be added to the community redevelopment area for a total of nearly 9 acres, according to MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo.

“We do want that land reserved for streetcars,” even though the lawsuit is finished, Johnson said.

“I understand his viewpoint,” said Henry Allen, chair of the Community Planning Committee for the Arborway Yard, a resident group advising the MBTA on the bus facility. But, Allen added in an email to the Gazette, the legal agreement for the bus facility plan says that “once all legal avenues seeking to restore trolley service had been exhausted, then the land reserved for the trolleys would revert to the City for community redevelopment.”

Johnson said the Arborway Committee will continue general public transit advocacy, with members serving on the current Casey Overpass replacement advisory group and the former Route 39 improvement advisory group. The Arborway Committee is also keeping an eye on possible MBTA attempts to reduce or kill Green Line service further between Brigham Circle and Heath Street, he said.

4 comments for “Trolley comeback killed by court

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *