Question: What to do about No. 23 bus run?

When the No. 23 bus hits the intersection of Washington Street and Columbia Road, a transportation lifeline can become a clogged artery.
During the early morning and late afternoon, traffic backs up on either side of Washington Street. Added to the mix of cars and trucks are school buses and MBTA buses on other routes. That means more reasons to stop, sometimes backing up vehicles on Washington Street into the middle of Columbia Road.

“This is clearly the toughest location we’re trying to deal with,” says Ralph DeNisco, Project Manager for consultants to the MBTA, McMahon Transportation Engineers & Planners.

At a meeting in Dorchester December 9 at the Codman Square Tech Center, DeNisco and the MBTA’s Project Director for Operations, Erik Scheier, got more advice from community organizations about improving service along Route 23, as well as the potential for new problems. The bus route is one of 15 the MBTA is trying to improve with the help of federal stimulus money.

Running between Ashmont Station and Ruggles Station, Route 23 covers 4.2 miles. With 212,000 riders a day, it’s the MBTA’s third busiest bus route. MBTA officials say an average trip along the whole route takes 30-45 minutes, with 40 stops.

Bus on Route 23 are supposed to run at peak hours every 5-7 minutes, but riders have long complained about long waits alternating with buses in rapid succession, or even traveling in pairs.
As a way to speed up service, the draft plan discussed at the community meeting called for reducing the number of inbound stops between Ashmont and Grove Hall from 17 to 13. Outbound stops would be cut down from 20 to 13.

“Having too many bus stops slows the service down,” DeNisco explained. “There’s a trade-off between how many stops there are and the benefits in terms of access, and how it affects the service overall.”

Another goal of planners is to make it easier for buses making stops to pull all the way over to the curb, with front and rear doors open for faster boarding and less traffic delay. Planners say it’s easier for a bus to pull all the way over at the far side of an intersection, which requires a shorter length for approaching the curb.

One location where planners are considering a shift of stops from the near side to the far side is at Washington Street and Columbia Road. The shift would allow buses to make stops after passing through traffic signals, or even to speed up the switch to a green light with the technology known as “traffic queuing.” Planners say changes like these could turn a two-minute stop into a one-minute stop.

“If you move these stops to the far side,” said DeNisco, “they’re going to be much more effective, looking at it from a traffic perspective.”

The executive director of the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition, Marvin Martin, said putting a stop near the parking lot for Burger King and B.D.’s Discount would force most riders to cross heavy traffic from the other side of Columbia Road.

“That’s where all the people are,” said Martin. “Why would they want to get over there near the parking lot to get on the bus?”

Planners say they also need more information about exactly where to locate the stops near the planned station on the Fairmount commuter rail line near Washington Street and Eldon Street. The draft plan showed an inbound stop being moved from a location in front of an apartment building to a store block. The executive director of the Four Corners Main Street program, Shelly Goehring, said the change would potentially eliminate five parking spaces.

“It increases the competition for parking right around businesses,” she said.

Since buses on Route 23 are equipped with global positioning devices, the MBTA hopes these can help avoid the bunching up. Planners are also considering more stops with amenities, such as shelters, benches and schedule information.

Scheier said the improvements could shorten the travel time on the route by as much as 15 percent. He says reducing the number of stops would also change riders’ perception.

“By not stopping as many times,” he said, “it feels as if it’s going faster.”

Changes along the route between Grove Hall and Ruggles Station are being planned with improvements for other routes in the same corridor. Planners say they will have more discussions about Route 23 with Boston transportation officials, with a final plan expected by the spring of 2010, and the main improvement work started by June.
“One of the main reasons this is moving ahead so quickly right now,” said Scheier, “is we’ve gotten stimulus money.”

Before the meeting ended, Martin reminded planners there should be recruiting to make sure the jobs created by the stimulus money go to people from the neighborhoods along the bus route in Dorchester and Roxbury.

“Jobs are always put out there,” said Martin. “And they say, ‘Approve this project and there’s going to be jobs for the community.’ And, once the work gets going, there’s nobody there that looks like us.”