In an era of massive budget deficits, Boston and state officials are scrambling to find money to build one of the most ambitious bus projects in the region after the federal government earlier this month declined to pay half the cost.
The $30 million project is expected to improve service for thousands of bus riders, most of whom are people of color, by replacing the center-running median with two two bus-only lanes on a congested three-mile stretch of Blue Hill Avenue that runs through the heart of Boston’s Black community and is heavily used by commuters.
Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority had pledged to cover half the cost when they together applied for a $15 million federal grant this summer. But it was not among the dozens of projects the Department of Transportation chose to fund. While officials say they remain committed to the project, it’s unclear where the rest of the money will come from.
“No one’s walking away from it right now, but we just don’t know what the game plan is yet,” said Julia Wallerce, who leads the Boston office of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, which has pressed for more bus-only lanes. “This is a big bang for your buck kind of corridor. We’ve just got to get enough bucks to fund it.”
The commissioner of the Boston Transportation Department, Greg Rooney, said the grant decision was obviously disappointing, but the Blue Hill Avenue project remains a priority for Mayor Martin J. Walsh. The city plans to make smaller improvements in the short-term, such as repainting crosswalks, and Rooney pledged to find funding elsewhere — either through the city’s budget, the MBTA’s, or some combination.
“We are committed to moving this project forward next year,” added Vineet Gupta, the department’s director of planning.
The MBTA is “regrouping with the city to develop a strategy for moving forward," added spokeswoman Lisa Battiston.
The project is expected to bring big improvements to exactly the kind of service the MBTA says it must prioritize as it considers budget cuts: routes that still have high ridership during the pandemic, in communities that rely heavily on transit.
“The project needs to happen one way or the other,” said Jarred Johnson, director of the advocacy group Transit Matters. “There’s obviously a huge equity benefit to doing this, but I think there’s also a really huge practical benefit to doing this: faster and more reliable bus service.”
It would also include a dozen stations along the bus lanes, similar to those along the above-ground Green Line, as well as bike lanes, sidewalk improvements, and public art, while eliminating some car lanes and parking.
On Wednesday, Boston is expected to hold its first public meeting on the project in several months. Officials have been trying to build consensus in the community for bus lanes for a year, after a similar proposal collapsed in 2009. But even some advocates backing the project are unsure if the community is behind it.
Vivian Ortiz, a cycling advocate from Mattapan, said the city should first have the money and community support firmly in place.
“Black and brown communities have not gotten any attention, and then all of a sudden everything wants to get done in a year,” she said. “I don’t think it should be rushed.”
There is also a political dimension to the corridor’s redesign as two supporters are running in next year’s mayoral race. One is City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who represents much of Blue Hill Avenue and wrote a letter of support included with the grant application.
“While it would have been great to get federal dollars for this project, the city and state need to keep their promises to the community and prioritize this corridor’s redesign," Campbell said in a statement.
Another mayoral challenger and bus-lane supporter is Councilor Michelle Wu, who has pushed the Walsh administration to more quickly devote street space to transit, bikes, and pedestrians. In an interview, she said the Blue Hill Avenue redesign must be implemented quickly.
“It represents one of the most important economic corridors in the city . . . and has the potential to connect residents, mostly residents of color, and environmental justice communities to jobs in a reliable and accessible way,” Wu said.
David Bragdon, executive director of the New York-based nonprofit TransitCenter, said elections are rarely won or lost on transportation policy at either the municipal or state levels. Until recently, politicians across the United States were extremely reluctant to even consider dedicating parking or travel lanes to buses, he noted.
Indeed, in 2018, when Walsh implemented the city’s first bus lane in more than a decade, he seemed openly skeptical about eliminating parking in Roslindale. Since then, though, his administration has added several other bus lanes. And the fact that Walsh, Wu, and Campbell are all pushing for more bus lanes ahead of a mayoral race may indicate the politics around streets have changed.
“In Boston, which is documented to have some of the slowest buses in the country, and where Black and other people of color are disproportionately reliant on buses, then speeding buses up is a racial justice issue,” Bragdon said. “It could also be a powerful electoral issue.”