State is free to kill trolleys


Gazette Photo by John Swan
Live mannequins in the window of Boomerangs surprise passers-by during First Thursday Dec. 7.

Debate to rage another year

The state will no longer be required to restore the Arborway trolley line through Jamaica Plain, following the settlement of a lawsuit filed by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF).

But trolleys remain theoretically possible, and JP will have one more bus-vs.-trolley debate. The state agreed to conduct a public process within the next year to consider improving public transit in the Arborway corridor. That could mean trolley restoration, Route 39 bus improvements, both, something else or nothing at all.

The settlement requires only a good-faith search for agreement, not the actual implementation of anything.

And agreement remains elusive in JP, as pro-trolley and pro-bus advocates reacted to the settlement by advocating for their preferred solutions. In fact, the history of vitriolic local debate likely “was a factor” in the decision to let trolley restoration fade out as a required project, according to CLF staff attorney Carrie Russell.

“I think potentially all the stars are aligned here” for improving 39 service, said Paul Schimek of Better Transit Without Trolleys (BTWT). He said he hopes trolleys will be left out of the discussion because the issue is a “distraction.”

“We will be in a position to talk about ways bus service could be improved…and also improving light rail,” said Franklyn Salimbene of the pro-trolley Arborway Committee, before adding, “It’s really not possible for the T to run that [bus] route in any reliable way.”

The CLF itself remains pro-trolley. “We continue to be supporters of that [trolley restoration] project,” said Russell.

The MBTA “temporarily” suspended Arborway trolley service from Heath Street to Forest Hills in 1985. The 39 bus acts as a replacement service in the corridor, which has become choked with car traffic since then.

Trolley restoration was one of several transit projects the state Executive Office of Transportation (EOT) was required to complete as mitigations for the Big Dig under a previous CLF lawsuit. The state and the MBTA have previously attempted to get out of doing the restoration several times, but have repeatedly been ordered by environmental officials to complete it. Meanwhile, JP has become divided on the issue, and 39 ridership has fallen significantly (though it is unclear if its current trend is up or down).

In 2004, the EOT announced that it would simply re-write environmental regulations so it no longer had to do the trolley project, as well as a Red Line-Blue Line connector and a Green Line extension to Somerville and Medford. The CLF lawsuit, filed last year, was an attempt to enforce all three projects.

The main reason for the settlement appears to be that the CLF was losing a race against time. The regulation change process is under way. If it was done before the lawsuit went to trial, the lawsuit would be moot.

“That was a concern,” Russell said.

Under the settlement, announced Nov. 29, the state now only has to complete the Green Line extension. The Red Line-Blue Line connector must be planned, but not necessarily built. And the Arborway trolley is allowed to vanish from the regulations.

However, the settlement language says: “The Parties agree that they will work in good faith with the City of Boston and other relevant parties to develop and agree upon recommended public transit improvements to the Arborway corridor over the course of the next year. All Parties agree to commit to and participate in a public process to identify and recommend any agreed upon improvements for the Arborway Corridor.”

The “Parties” include Gov. Mitt Romney and top state transit and environmental officials.

Also, the Arborway corridor must now see the air quality improvements that a trolley would provide.

In practical terms, it appears that trolley restoration is dead. The state still needs federal approval of its rewrite of the regulations, but all the federal government examines is regional air quality benefits, not specific projects.

And the state will run the new public process, which doesn’t have to result in any action at all. The process has yet to be scheduled. The EOT did not return a Gazette phone call for this article.

Russell argued that trolley restoration remains on the table. “They have sort of left the door open on that one,” she said. “The Arborway restoration project itself could still happen.”

But, she acknowledged, it’s a “shift in saying they need to follow through.”

“In the negotiating process, of course you have to compromise,” Russell said. “Honestly, I feel very good about the fact that the state did not completely abandon this corridor.”

Also, while the CLF will advocate for the trolley, it could be satisfied by something else. “I don’t know what the ultimate [transit] project is going to look like,” Russell said.

Schimek emphasized that once the regulation is changed, the trolley is gone.

“There’s no more sort of legal mandate to do anything in the corridor,” he said.

At this point, trolley restoration apparently could come only with a significant shift in JP public opinion and a change of heart among state officials.

However, with new Gov. Deval Patrick coming into office in January and the public process almost certainly happening after that, there is at least the possibility of some such policy changes.

“That’s the other imponderable, isn’t it?” said Salimbene. “This is a settlement with a lame-duck administration [of Romney]. We know we’re going to have an administration that is much more sensitive to environmental justice and urban issues than the previous administration was.”

The settlement language appears noncommittal and, as both Schimek and Salimbene noted, doesn’t really have legal teeth. Considering the years of heated public debate, it is at this point hard to imagine any long-term transit solution in the corridor that would be “agreed upon,” though short-term bus improvements might be.

“If [the process] can’t reach consensus, the T is able to walk away,” Salimbene said.

Russell said that the CLF will resume legal action if the state doesn’t make a serious effort toward transit improvements.

The MBTA has long argued that the 39 bus is a fine replacement, especially now that it runs with 60-foot buses powered by natural gas.

But, Russell said, something new needs to be done.

“The current bus line is not enough,” she said. “They have to do another project. Definitely.”

However, improvements to the existing bus line “could be considered a new project,” she said.

Last week, the MBTA announced “improvements” to several bus lines, including the 39, effective Dec. 30. On the 39, it basically involves posting workers along the route to see if it’s running on time or getting stuck someplace. MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said the improvements have nothing to do with the lawsuit settlement. Instead, he said, they are part of the MBTA’s promised service improvements following the recent fare increase.

Russell said the new bus line improvements don’t fulfill the agreement, particularly because they appear to mostly involve fixing failures in what is supposed to be the current level of service.

“I would think the project for the Arborway corridor would have to be beyond the current service [level],” she said, adding that whatever it is must follow the public process.

BTWT has long proposed various 39 improvements to the MBTA, including placing Global Positioning System devices on buses to track them, as well as automatic passenger-counting devices that could be used to tweak service levels daily as needed.

Other ideas include reconfiguring the Back Bay end of the route to make it shorter, installing more bus stop amenities, and introducing traffic signals that prioritize buses. BTWT is even proposing new bus routes as a solution, such as one straight to Brookline Village and the Green Line stop there.

“They never really had a reason to take it seriously before,” Schimek said of such BTWT proposals. “What they were saying was anything that involved [spending] money was basically a no-go.”

Schimek said the forthcoming public process could be a chance to make such
improvements happen quickly—especially if trolleys aren’t discussed at all. And “quickly” is key, Schimek said, calling current 39 service “abominable.”

BTWT is also advocating again for the removal of the old trolley rails on Centre and South streets, which would be replaced even if the trolley was restored. Trolley advocates have argued against the removal project, saying such major work should be folded into trolley restoration. Symbolism appears to be involved in both sides of the argument as well.

Salimbene agreed that 39 service should be improved and said the public process can involve “consensus” and not necessarily “unanimity.”

“I say that fully knowing that our position may not be the one that consensus has built around,” he said.

But, Salimbene said, in the long-term, buses will always be an inferior transit mode. A key advantage is that trolleys offer transfer-free connections to downtown and the core rail system.

Salimebene said the forthcoming process is a chance for everyone “to think logically and practically and come up with a solution that is honest, a solution that is fair and a solution that really encourages people to use the bloody thing.”

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