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The Boston Globe

Opinion

PAUL MCMORROW

Forest Hill’s white elephant of a bus yard

It used to be that any hard commitment to build a long-delayed, massively expensive MBTA bus yard at Forest Hills counted as good news. That was back when a warren of shabby industrial properties lined the neighborhood’s main drag, back when the notion of trading an unsightly bus maintenance yard stretching along Washington Street for a costly bus garage tucked off the street seemed like the best the neighborhood could possibly hope for. No longer.

Things are far different in this corner of Jamaica Plain than they were 13 years ago, when the city and the T first struck a deal to move a portion of the T’s bus fleet to Forest Hills. The neighborhood is just beginning to realize its tremendous development potential. But it’s apparent that one of largest obstacles to the realization of that potential is the MBTA bus garage Forest Hills neighbors once clamored for.

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The T has had a fleet of buses parked on a temporary Jamaica Plain bus yard along Washington Street for a decade now. Neighbors of the Arborway bus yard, as it’s known, extracted a steep price from the T when the transit agency traded an old facility outside Dudley Square for an abandoned trolley yard at Forest Hills. The T committed to setting up along Washington Street for just long enough to build a modern bus depot on the inner reaches of its Forest Hills property; afterward, it would turn over the outermost 8 acres of the site to the city, which would lead the property’s redevelopment.

The bus yard deal was signed in 2001. The T was supposed to be off its temporary Washington Street bus yard by the end of 2003, at a cost of $50 million. The project’s price tag now hovers between $180 million and $200 million. Transportation budget writers have consistently bypassed the Forest Hills facility. The permanent bus depot isn’t much closer to completion now than it was a decade ago.

As the permanent bus yard has sat unfunded on the T’s books, the area around it has emerged from a decades-long doldrums. The rickety Casey Overpass is coming down, removing a major physical and psychological barrier between the Forest Hills Orange Line station and the surrounding streets. The industrial properties along Washington Street are giving way to apartments and shops that promise to knit the neighborhood more closely together, built by developers that are embracing the area’s proximity to the T. The Boston Redevelopment Authority handed development permits to a 3-acre, 289-unit apartment development across the street from the Arborway bus yard late last year.

The T’s Forest Hills holdings have much more obvious development appeal than they did 13 years ago. That has some Jamaica Plain residents rethinking the logic behind the planned $200 million bus yard. The property has become too prime a potential housing development site to waste on a bus yard.

One neighbor, Allan Ihrer, has been shopping around an idea for moving the bus yard a mile down the road, to a publicly owned parcel along American Legion Highway. Ihrer has served for years on a neighborhood committee charged with getting the new Arborway bus yard built. But he’s become convinced that the Forest Hills depot is a white elephant in the making — an extraordinarily expensive facility, built for a bus fleet with an uncertain future, that gobbles up land that would be better used for housing.

Officials at the T recently shot down Ihrer’s proposal and reaffirmed the agency’s commitment to the Arborway yard. They claimed Ihrer’s alternative site would invite cost overruns and delays. They asked the wrong questions, though.

Instead of finding reasons not to move its bus yard onto American Legion Highway, the T’s planners should be asking why the bus yard has to rise in Forest Hills — a prime site for building much-needed housing — instead of anywhere else in the city. The Arborway bus depot might have made sense 13 years ago, before the linkage of transit and housing, before the demolition of the Casey Overpass primed the parcel for development. But that doesn’t mean the state should throw hundreds of millions of dollars at an idea that doesn’t make sense any longer.

Paul McMorrow is an associate editor at Commonwealth Magazine. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

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