Editorial: The T needs help on Route 39 plan

The MBTA needs help with its plan to improve the Route 39 bus service—whether it knows it or not.

Jamaica Plain’s elected officials should step in to make sure this much-needed project moves forward with accountability and proper public input.

So far, the three-year-old Route 39 planning has been marked by secrecy, delays and blunders.

Transit riders, residents and business owners along the entire route, from JP to the Back Bay, deserve better. The plan would change the operation of the T’s second-busiest bus route. It would require significant street work and cost many thousands of taxpayer dollars. It must be done right.

There is much merit in the T’s general plan, which would build upon the dramatic improvements in the Route 39 service over the past decade. It aims to reduce the number of bus stops while improving many that remain with shelters or other amenities.

The changes would speed service, attract more people to public transit, and fulfill a legal obligation to make bus stops fully accessible to people with disabilities.

The devil is in the details. Controversially, the plan eliminates bus stops near senior housing, medical facilities and key businesses.

The T never asked anyone around those stops if that is a good idea. Indeed, the T refused to conduct outreach, instead basing its decision-making on outdated 2005 bus ridership data.

While the T held some public meetings and organized a small “working group” of residents, a good portion of the process was deliberately secret. The T now says it is rethinking some of its decisions, but has not reached out to anyone.

The T excused its shoddy process with what turned out to be a false sense of urgency. The planning had to be wrapped up without even being finished due to funding deadlines, T officials claimed. But the original construction date passed without action 18 months ago, and the schedule continues to change without notice, even though the T now says it has funding in place. As the Gazette recently discovered, the new timeframe is spring 2012—four years after the planning began.

Route 39 riders are already suffering one consequence of this clumsy process, which could be a taste of things to come. In 2009, the T removed a bus stop shelter across South Street from the Harvest Co-op Market, saying the stop soon would be cut despite resident protests.

But the plan was delayed, and grocery-carrying riders remain exposed to the elements. Now the T is considering keeping that stop after all, but other sidewalk changes have left little or no room to replace the shelter. And the T acknowledged months ago that it should have consulted Harvest—but still has not done so.

There is no evidence of bad intentions from T officials. They are simply not experts in running a democratic process. Elected officials are, and should step up to the plate.

The T needs valuable input from bus riders and from residents and institutions near key stops. And it needs to clearly explain its schedule dilemma so that residents can advocate for a solution. At least six months remain for meetings or hearings to make that happen.

Any elected official who organizes such an effort would be doing JP—and the MBTA itself—a big favor.

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