MBTA, Boston seek federal funds to put bus lanes in center of Blue Hill Ave.

The plan could revive old tensions over a similar idea that fell apart more than a decade ago

A rendering shows how new dedicated bus lanes might look on Blue Hill Avenue. MassDOT

More than a decade after the bitter collapse of an ambitious plan to improve bus transit on Blue Hill Avenue, Boston and state officials are pursuing a similar idea, seeking federal funds to redesign the wide thoroughfare with bus lanes at the center.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and the City of Boston have applied for a $15 million grant to overhaul three miles of the road through Mattapan and Roxbury, with bus-only lanes bisecting the street and eliminating some parking spaces and reducing travel lanes.

The project, which would also install separated bike lanes and bring infrastructure improvements to Mattapan Square, would be a boon to bus riders in a neighborhood with the longest average commuting times in Boston. Blue Hill Avenue is a crucial connection for popular bus routes like the 22 and 28, which serve mostly people of color and have retained comparatively high ridership during the coronavirus pandemic.

“One of Boston’s biggest problems, especially with the Black community in Mattapan, is that public transportation is really bad,” said Jessie Dambreville, a Mattapan resident and activist. “If you want people to not drive as much, you need to have better public transportation.”

The MBTA’s general manager, Steve Poftak, said the project would create “premier bus service infrastructure” that would shave up to 13 minutes off of travel times and allow drivers to make more trips.

Officials expect a decision on the federal funding, which would be matched by a similar joint contribution from the MBTA and the city, as soon as this fall. The project could be completed by the end of next year, according to the grant application.

But the proposal may also raise old tensions along the corridor, which state officials eyed for a similar project in 2009. At the time, the state said it would seek more than $100 million in federal stimulus funding for a “bus rapid transit” project, called the 28X, to replace Blue Hill Avenue’s medians with designated space to dramatically improve service on the 28 bus.

Officials said they had to act quickly to secure the funding, but community leaders were caught off-guard and balked at the plan, arguing they’d been given little opportunity to provide input. Elected officials turned against the idea, sinking the proposal.

The episode has lingered as a cautionary tale about failing to engage with neighborhoods before unveiling a major transportation initiative.

“It put a lot of hurry on the methodical process that people have become accustomed to, the kind of process that persuades people,” said James Aloisi, who was state transportation secretary when the idea was introduced. “Communities that had been neglected, or given sub-optimal transit, or felt they’d been lied to for many years about the T were skeptical and wanted to kick the tires on it.”

Much has changed since then, including the adoption of bus lanes across the region as a way to speed transit through congested corridors. Center lanes, similar to those for above-ground trolleys, are seen as especially advantageous because they free buses not only from moving traffic, but also from vehicles that may be parking, turning right, or stopping for a delivery.

Supporters of the new proposal are quick to note that, this time, the city has been leading discussions on Blue Hill Avenue’s redesign for about a year. The Boston Transportation Department said it has received hundreds of comments on the project, including support for better bicycle infrastructure and bus service, though officials declined to share the comments.

“It feels like there’s been a better process,” said Shavel’le Olivier, executive director of the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition. “I think this time, they’re taking their time.”

But others were surprised to hear officials were already moving to secure federal funds for the project.

“To me, they’re repeating the same mistakes,” said Michael Kozu of Project R.I.G.H.T., a nonprofit near the project’s northern edge in Grove Hall, who had criticized the 28X project. “Come to a consensus about how you’re going to do this, and then the people who opposed it then may be joining in as a partner.”

While 28X ran into issues over the planning process, Kozu said some criticism from residents in the Grove Hall area, where the road narrows, also focused on the proposal’s substance. Replacing a median strip with bus lanes, he argued, could make it more difficult for people to cross the wide street.

Matthew Skelly, a committee chair with the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council, said that while he supports street changes to improve transit, there may be a “lack of comfort” in the neighborhood over the concept. Losing parking, he said, is often a “hot-button issue” in Mattapan, in part because public transit is lacking.

In the grant application, officials said they would retain about half the current parking, as well as every left-turn lane, but Blue Hill Ave. would be reduced to one or two lanes in either direction. The proposal also said it would keep the street’s median trees; some of the criticism of the earlier plan centered on concerns about the loss of trees.

The Blue Hill Avenue bus lanes would eventually feed into planned bus-only lanes on Columbus Avenue and Warren Street, with connections to Jackson and Nubian squares, according to the application.

MBTA officials said the concept could still change, despite the grant application, and the city said it will hold another public meeting on the project this month.

Disapproval of the initial project wasn’t universal, noted state Representative Russell Holmes, who wrote a letter in support of the recent grant application.

“I’m on the side that it was a major lost opportunity,” said Holmes, recalling that he decided to run for office after the 28X idea failed. He lauded the city’s recent outreach efforts but said the history made some pushback inevitable.

“There are still scars from the first process. Those scars have not healed,” he said. But “we need to have a bus improvement because that corridor carries the most bus riders anywhere in the state.”

Mela Miles, who runs the T Riders Union at the Roxbury nonprofit Alternatives for Communuty and Environment, said community engagement is often a problem in transportation projects. Events that draw 100 or more people are generally considered successful, although they represent only a small fraction of those affected. Low-income communities and neighborhoods of color may also resist transit projects they fear will lead to gentrification and the displacement of residents, she added.

“Historically, when somebody does any kind of transportation or road improvements, it means they might be on their way out,” she said. “People have not been very trusting of different processes if they’re afraid they’ll get forced out of their community.”

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