Feds officially kill trolleys

John Ruch

Lawsuit and bus fixes still pending

Plans to restore the Arborway Line trolley service through Jamaica Plain officially died July 31, when the federal government quietly approved new state regulations that kill the idea.

The last hope for trolley restoration advocates is a still-pending lawsuit that would force the restoration.

Meanwhile, the state Executive Office of Transportation (EOT) is reportedly still working on plans to improve the Route 39 bus service that replaced the trolleys on the JP end of the Green Line. That process is already nine months past a deadline required by another lawsuit.

“There’s going to be further civic engagement,” EOT spokesperson Adam Hurtubise told the Gazette. But the EOT could not specify any kind of schedule for the process.

“We are certainly committed to ensuring that a vibrant public process go forward,” said CLF President Philip Warburg in a Gazette interview. “We are expecting [EOT] to keep the ball moving on this one.”

Until 1985, Green Line trolleys ran down S. Huntington Avenue and Centre and South streets between Heath Street and Forest Hills. The last of the old trolley tracks were paved over this year. A 1990 lawsuit by the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) required restoration of the trolley service as part of air-quality mitigations for the Big Dig.

The MBTA ran a trolley restoration planning process for several years with a community advisory committee called the Arborway Rail Restoration Project Advisory Committee. But it was always clear that the state was going along with the project grudgingly.

In 2003, the state announced that it would simply rewrite environmental regulations to get out of restoring the service. The new regulations replace the air-quality benefits of trolleys with new parking lots and commuter rail improvements elsewhere. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved that change last month in a long-expected technical decision.

In 2005, the CLF sued the state again to require trolley restoration and other transit projects. But the then-pending regulatory change made that case shaky. In a 2006 lawsuit settlement, the CLF allowed the state to kill trolley restoration, while requiring a public process to think of transit improvements in the “Arborway corridor.” The settlement does not require the state to actually carry out any improvements.

That decision inspired the local pro-trolley Arborway Coalition to sue the CLF and the state in 2007, alleging that the state was breaching its 1990 contract with the CLF by killing trolley restoration.

Franklyn Salimbene, head of the Arborway Coalition, said the lawsuit is still pending and unaffected by the EPA’s decision.

“The lawsuit is not premised on the regulation,” Salimbene said. “That [regulatory change] in no way, in our view, affects the obligation of the state to restore Arborway service.”

Meanwhile, the EOT last year began a public process of recommending Route 39 improvements. The process is intended to meet the requirements of the 2006 CLF lawsuit settlement. However, there is debate about whether a bus-focused process meets the legal language. Clearly, the process has violated the agreement’s deadline of wrapping up by November, 2007. The last public meeting was held six months ago.

At that meeting, held in February in JP, state transit officials presented a variety of proposed Route 39 improvements, including removing many bus stops and making significant streetscape changes. Trolley and bus advocates alike generally spoke favorably of the EOT ideas, while expressing concern at the lack of a budget and timeline.

EOT officials indicated they wanted to move quickly. They proposed forming a citizens advisory committee (CAC) within a couple of months to review the proposals. But that did not happen. There have been no further public meetings.

“We are in the process of developing the advisory group. It has not been formed,” said EOT spokesperson Klark Jessen in an e-mail to the Gazette. “The time frame on that and scheduling of public hearings [are] still to be determined.”

Warburg, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez all told the Gazette that they have heard from EOT officials in recent weeks about preparations to form the CAC.

“I want to make sure it’s representative of the entire route,” Wilkerson said, noting that the Route 39 runs beyond JP all the way to Back Bay Station.

“We’re waiting,” Sánchez said.

In its decision approving the regulatory change, the EPA also noted the lawsuit settlement and its requirement of an Arborway improvement process. “EPA encourages all parties involved to fully implement this agreement,” the decision says.

See Also: US Federal Register report on EPA ruling

From the Gazette: State suggests Route 39 changes, March 6, 2008

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