Members of the Mattapan community hammered Gov. Deval Patrick's transportation czar this week over a proposal to replace the Route 28 bus and extend the Silver Line to Mattapan Square. At a Tuesday night transportation "summit" held in Boston Public Library's Mattapan branch and organized by Dorchester's State House delegation, Transportation Secretary James Aloisi fended off a flurry of questions from about 60 community members, many of whom expressed anger at being left out of the loop on the proposal.
And key members of the delegation, who have also complained about feeling left out, said they are withholding support for the project, citing too many unanswered questions. The proposal would use $117 million in federal stimulus funds, and as a result, needs to be fast-tracked, with a final decision reached on the project by July. If not for the federal funds, such a project would take â€œmonths and monthsâ€ of public review, Aloisi said.
The route is considered one of the area's busiest, with 12,000 bus boardings every weekday, according to transportation officials.
"It's use it or lose it,"Aloisi said of the funds. "It has to be on a fast time-frame."
Aloisi promised "heated, pleasant [bus] stations,"along with a dedicated bus lane down the middle of Blue Hill Avenue. The proposal would spur new economic development, speed up service and improve the reliability of buses in the underserved neighborhoods, he said.
Aloisi said if the community wants to spend the money elsewhere, "fine, we'll spend it somewhere else."
The transportation secretary, who started his job in January, said the ball on the proposal started rolling in February, "because I had a vision." That vision includes shifting the transportation conversation from a focus on road and bridges to public transit, he said.
Community members, most of whom said they were abutters to the proposed project and did not take the current Route 28 bus, were not swayed.
"That's not how you bring it to someone,"said Walter Apperwhite, a former community organizer and vice president of the Mattapan Patriots in the Pop Warner football group, drawing a chorus of "Amen"from the crowd.
"You can't just keep saying you're going to take your money elsewhere,"Apperwhite added. While Aloisi may have been working on the proposal since February, "we've just seen this," he said.
"For us, it's a total change in how our neighborhood functions," said state Rep. Marie St. Fleur.
"This is not about trying to force an issue," Aloisi responded.
State Sen. Jack Hart sought to defend Aloisi, saying he wasn't trying to threaten people. "He's trying to be candid," Hart said.
Aloisi spent an hour in a back-and-forth with Mattapan residents, far beyond the fifteen minutes that were slotted for his remarks and an additional 15 minutes for a question-and-answer period.
"That's part of the give-and-take,"he told the Reporter while briefly stepping out of the meeting and being asked about community members' comments. He added that much of what the crowd says has validity. He cited broken promises to Mattapan residents from past transportation officials.
"They have to put themselves in my shoes, too,"Aloisi said. "At the end of the day, they'll know we're sincere."
Asked why his office took so long in reaching out to the community, Aloisi said the Route 28 proposal is "not the only thing we're doing."
A major transportation overhaul is in the works on Beacon Hill, with bills consolidating various agencies and other reforms now in a conference committee of House and Senate lawmakers. Brought in for his transportation expertise, Aloisi has had a troubled tenure, as both he and Patrick have clashed with lawmakers over differing proposals and shots at the Legislature in the media.
Aloisi said the Route 28 proposal is expected to generate 320 jobs. Asked by community members to ensure local workers are employed for it, Aloisi again noted the restrictions on federal funding and said he couldn't guarantee that, but added that his office will do "everything we can to put a thumb on the scale."
Leaving Tuesday's two-hour summit in Mattapan, local legislators, some of who had joined Gov. Patrick and Aloisi for the May 4 announcement, said they remained unsure of the proposal. They plan on forming a "working group" for dealing with the proposal.
"There's so many unanswered questions," particularly how businesses in Mattapan Square will be affected by the expansion, said state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry. "There's work to be done."
Added state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz: "I think there's a lot more to be figured out."
Hart also said he didn't yet support the project.
"This was an introduction to the concept of a $117 million dedicated expanded bus route that the community needs to digest," he said.
A "master plan" is needed for all of Mattapan, along with a master plan to sell the project to the public, he said.
"He's a pretty blunt character,"he said of Aloisi. "Somebody suggested it was abrasive. He's not threatening here."
Additional forums are scheduled for June 8 at the Dudley branch of the Boston Public Library system, another Mattapan meeting at the library branch on June 9, and a third forum in Grove Hall at to-be-announced location, according to transportation officials.
Prior coverage: 'Enhanced' bus service could resemble rapid transit