State seeking community input for new transit study

More than a year after a public outcry forced state transportation officials to abandon their plan to install a new bus line down the Blue Hill Avenue corridor, the state transportation department is going back to the drawing board and asking Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan residents to weigh in on what kind of improvements will help the area’s transit needs.

A virtual reversal of the state’s efforts in 2009 to use then-available federal stimulus funding to replace the route 28 bus with dedicated lanes for a Silver-line style bus route dubbed “28X,” the transit needs study is starting from the ground up by surveying residents in an effort to determine what kind of improvements would best fit the area.

The transit study will focus on the area between the Red and Orange subway lines and stretches from the lower South End to the southern end of Mattapan.

In an interview with the Reporter, state transportation secretary Jeffrey Mullan, who attended a public meeting earlier this month at the Franklin Park golf course introducing the study, said that he considers the area one of the most important transit regions.

“We’ve got a population that relies on transit that in some cases doesn’t have a lot of choices and yet we don’t have a great long term strategy plan for that,” Mullan said.

Transit officials are beginning to take the message to the community with a series of meetings to introduce the purpose and goals of the study. A presentation given at the Franklin Park meeting identifies the Roxbury/Dorchester/Mattapan corridor’s “relative lack of rapid transit access,” - its distance from two high-speed train lines - as a key reason for the new effort.

Throughout January, the study plans to form an advisory committee to help guide the process and provide feedback. In February, stakeholder meetings with community institutions and groups will begin and a survey will be distributed to gauge rider needs across the study area. Regular meetings and data analysis will continue for most of the year, until recommendations and concept plans are offered in November. The final study report is expected by March of next year.

Transit officials hope to derive short, medium and long-term goals from the study. Everything from bus schedule alterations to the installation of light rail is on the table, even if the resulting plan has to be shelved until funding can be put in place.

Both the Franklin Park meeting and the second meeting in Dudley Square attracted a sparse but engaged mixture of residents, civic leaders and elected officials, many of who are veterans of the battle over 28X. The third introductory meeting will be held Jan. 26 at the Mattapan branch of the Boston Public Library. (A meeting set for last Wednesday, Jan. 12 in Mattapan was cancelled due to a winter storm.)

Some of the concerns expressed at the Franklin Park meeting dealt with the decision-making process and how it will differ from previous projects. Scott Hamwey of the Transportation Department’s Office of Transportation Planning assured attendees that the study would be an “unrestrained look,” at the needs of the area and that community involvement would be sought throughout the process.

Mullan said that he is mindful of the area’s history when it comes to transit, adding that the 28X project “didn’t go very well.” Beyond creating a plan to improve transit options, one of the goals of the study, according to Mullan, is to send a message to residents of the area that their concerns are important to him.

“What I wanted to signal to people was that this is important,” Mullan said, “and it’s very real.”

“This is the right thing to do, to make sure that we get way out in front on this so that no one comes in at the end and says that they were not heard,” said Russell Holmes, who served on the 28X project advisory group prior to being elected to the House of Representatives last November. Holmes said that transportation officials brought the plan for the study to the Boston delegation and by hosting meetings around the area, they are conducting the process fairly.

“I hope that this time everyone at least feels like they were heard,” Holmes said.

When asked about the concerns raised at the meeting about how the state plans to pay for the implementation of a new transit plan, Mullan said “people are wise to be concerned about funding,” but “that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t plan for the future.”

Mullan admits that the timing of the 28X project was difficult. Federal stimulus funds would have granted the state a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” to transform the area with dedicated bus lanes and larger buses, Mullan said. The federal TIGER grant program, part of the massive American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or stimulus program, created tight deadlines for states to apply for funds. State officials eventually withdrew the 28X plans when members of the community and elected officials voiced concerns about if the plan was the best for the area.

“I think that we probably got a little ahead of ourselves by predicting a certain outcome,” Mullan said.
“We probably made a misstep in communicating that to the neighbors,” Mullan said. “Clearly, people felt left out of the process.”