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MBTA teaming with Boston-area cities to build 14 miles of bus lanes amid coronavirus pandemic

A rendering of the planned new bus lanes for Columbus Avenue.
A rendering of the planned new bus lanes for Columbus Avenue.City of Boston

The MBTA said Thursday that it’s teaming up with Boston, Chelsea, Everett and Somerville on an “unprecedented” effort to build up to 14 miles of dedicated bus lanes in those communities to improve service reliability and reduce crowded conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a statement, the T said projects to be “implemented” in the fall and spring include dedicated bus lanes on Columbus Avenue in Boston between Walnut Avenue and Jackson Square Station; North Washington Street in Boston from Cross Street to Causeway Street; Broadway in Chelsea from City Hall Plaza to 3rd Street; Washington Street in Somerville between McGrath Highway and Sullivan Square; Sweetser Circle, Main Street near Sweetser Circle, and Broadway from Sweetser Circle to Chelsea Street in Everett; and Washington Street in Boston to Roslindale from Forest Hills Station to Roslindale Village.

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The Globe recently reported on the Columbus Avenue portion of the project. Rather than running on the outside lanes along the curb, buses on Columbus will instead have the center lanes of the streets to themselves, a design that transit experts have long championed as the best way to quickly move buses past cars, which have long held dominion over the roads.

The T said Thursday that dedicated bus lanes can reduce crowding on buses and limit the amount of time riders spend near others while on the bus. In some cases, the T said, bus lanes can improve service frequency to further thin out crowds.

According to the T, several of the corridors selected for dedicated bus lanes are “critical connections” for people headed to essential jobs on routes including 15, 22, 23, 28, 66, 86, 111, 116, and 117. The changes, the T said, will benefit over 50,000 weekday riders, a tally that could eventually more than double based on pre-pandemic ridership numbers for the month of February.

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Several projects, the T added, were in the planning stages before the pandemic but then fast-tracked as part of the Rapid Response Bus Lanes Program, while others were identified based on ridership trends since March.

The T said emergency response vehicles and school buses will be allowed to use these bus lanes, and that several projects include shared bus and bike lanes, dedicated bike facilities, and pedestrian safety improvements.

“The Rapid Response Bus Lanes Program is about addressing the needs of riders today while taking a transformative step forward to build a better T,” said MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak in the statement. “Throughout the pandemic, the majority of our ridership has been on our bus system. Advancing this program is the fastest way we can provide thousands of our riders with significant improvements in service reliability.”

His words were echoed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston.

“This rapid implementation program comes at a critical time when Bostonians need to know that their bus will get them safely and rapidly to wherever they need to get to,” Walsh said in the statement. “Along with our Healthy Streets initiative, the MBTA’s Rapid Response Program moves our region’s transportation system forward, making it more resilient. We have seen great success on our bus lane projects across the City in the last few years and we are looking forward to offering to our residents improved service conditions through this program.”

The T said it expects to spend about $20 million in 2020 and early 2021 to complete the bus lanes, through direct construction and reimbursements to cities that “construct projects themselves.”

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Municipalities, the T said, generally provide additional funding for things like streetscape improvements that don’t directly affect bus service. Actual cost sharing varies by project, the T said.

Chelsea City Manager Thomas G. Ambrosino looks forward to the day when Route 111 has a dedicated bus lane under terms of the project.

“Chelsea residents depend on numerous key bus routes like Route 111, which is a critical connection to Boston that carries over 12,000 riders each day to work, the grocery store, and critical services,” Ambrosino said in the statement. “Enhancing service for Chelsea residents, particularly low and moderate income individuals, will reduce delays and overcrowding along these important routes.”

Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria also has high hopes for the initiative.

“Creating bus lanes in places like Sweetser Circle – the biggest travel bottleneck in the City – is critical for improving the commutes of our residents and advancing toward bus rapid transit,” DeMaria said in the statement.Reliable and efficient public transportation is key to creating and preserving affordable housing for our residents and their ability to access our region’s economy.”

Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone, said the new bus lanes will help many of his city’s most vulnerable residents.

“Our most vulnerable residents have borne the brunt of this illness, even as many of them have been among our essential workforce that has never ceased heading into work every day,” Curtatone said in the statement. “Bus lanes that quickly enhance access to safe transit, cut commute travel times, and improve air quality for our most vulnerable residents are a pressing necessity in neighborhoods like East Somerville. Streamlined bus routes are safer bus routes, and they serve parts of our community that deserve priority attention.”

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Adam Vaccaro of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.