T tunnel cap idea is gaining serious traction

The existing and vacant Red Line tunnel cap looking from Centre Street to Ashmont this week. Long just a dream, the pathway along the tunnel cap – officially known as the Dorchester Greenway – now has funding, political will, and structural studies in the works over the next few months.

A new multi-use path along the Red Line tunnel cap from Fields Corner to Ashmont has been a pie-in-the-sky dream for residents going back decades, but those dreams are inching closer to reality with funding in place to begin studying possibilities for use of the cap space – which is owned by the MBTA.

With $300,000 in grant money from the state’s MassTrails program, and city matching funds of $368,000, there are now ample resources to begin looking seriously at what is called the “Dorchester Greenway” as a new neighborhood resource for, say, a pathway for walkers and bikers, for starters.

The MassTrails grant funding was the result of advocacy from Sen. Nick Collins and Rep. Dan Hunt.

The lawmaker's offices say that $3 million has already been set aside to build-out the tunnel cap amenities once a plan is complete. That funding was part of a transportation bond bill.

Already, one section of the cap is in use as a pathway from the Park Street area – where trains enter and exit the tunnel en route to Fields Corner and Ashmont – to Melville Avenue to Mather Street and past Shawmut Station down to Centre Street.

Other sections –from Park Street to Fields Corner and Centre Street to Peabody Square at Ashmont – are fenced off.

“I think everyone would love to see it happen, but we have to take all the initial steps,” said Charlotte Fleetwood, Boston Transportation Department (BTD) senior transportation planner. “Depending on what we find out from the structural analysis, it might be possible to do something bare bones sooner than later. We have to work through those options. We might be able to get something to use in a shorter time period – a two-year rather than five-year time frame.”

The existing tunnel cap pathway around Shawmut Station would be a pattern for any new tunnel cap pathway, but city officials said they would be looking at how to potentially improve even the existing tunnel cap path.

All that will also depend on a land survey of the properties abutting the tunnel cap being done as soon as possible, Fleetwood said, noting that the MBTA has assigned a staff person to the project.

“We are very close to the deadline on the grant, and so we’re planning on going out to bid as soon as possible” and getting the structural and right-of-way analyses done before June 30, she said.

Abby Jamiel, the director of Livable Streets Emerald Network, said they came on as a fiscal agent before the pandemic and were able to get political momentum in 2022, which resulted in the state grant and the city funding. She said that after so many stalls on the tunnel cap, “it finally felt like the time was now” in 2022.

“The plan for the idea to have this greenway has been alive in the community going on at least nine years,” she said. “The idea first and foremost started with community members, Greater Ashmont Main Streets, and a lot of people that did a ton of work on their own time.

“We want to let people know that things are happening, but it will start with the behind-the-scenes stuff,” she said. “We hope we can also move into community engagement this year to ask for specific ideas.”

Fleetwood said the state grant and the city’s matching money of $68,000 would be used for these purposes before the June 30 deadline, but an additional $300,000 from the city will be used after June 30 for other work.

More than a decade ago residents along the unused cap dreamed of an off-road walking and biking path with gardens and sitting spaces like the Southwest Corridor along the Orange Line. But many felt it would never happen despite the community support, but things have changed radically. Now, Jamiel and Fleetwood say, it’s time to start dreaming again.

“We don’t know what we don’t know, but we’ll find out and hopefully we’ll take the next step,” said Fleetwood, adding that they would also be looking at the existing tunnel cap path to see how it might be improved as well.

Jamiel said the focus will first be on the section from Centre Street to Peabody Square, and then from Melville/Park Street to Fields Corner.

“The entire idea is that it goes all the way to Fields Corner from Ashmont,” she said. “We are really trying to focus this on everybody – any age – or any different activity that is not in a vehicle. We need to prioritize kids and the elderly, and yes, we know bikes, but we know there are also scooters and wheelchairs…The notion is to get people not in cars off of … Dorchester Avenue as a transportation corridor.

“We also want to be dedicated to some open space and enlarging the tree canopy,” Fleetwood said in noting that they will be holding public meetings once they have more information on the structural and land surveys – reaching out to the general community, but especially to abutters along the capway.

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