If you wonder why Boston traffic is a perennial problem, look no further than the fight between the city and state over the maintenance of bus-only lanes.
Officials are quibbling over who going forward should pick up a $140,000 tab — much of it to pay for paint needed to mark off the lanes restricted to buses during rush hour. Think about that the next time you’re sitting in
Bus-only lanes are perhaps the lowest hanging of fruits in the world of transportation fixes. A city just needs to declare a stretch of streets will be open only to buses — and yes, some paint is involved to mark those streets.
Last year after much hemming and hawing, Boston set up a one-mile long bus-only lane during the morning rush hour on Washington Street in Roslindale. The result: Commute times shrank by several minutes or more.
Five other municipalities — including Cambridge, Everett, and Watertown — have launched dedicated bus lanes, but only the City of Boston is asking the state to pony up as it explores expanding the program. It’s not enough apparently that the MBTA supplies the buses.
On the one hand, who can fault the City of Boston for wanting to save taxpayers a little money? On the other hand, Boston has little leverage here; at least pick a fight you have a shot at winning. The MBTA operates about 175 bus routes throughout the region, and the state will simply move on to helping the next town that wants to save its citizens time.
If fighting over paint leads to fewer bus lanes in Boston, the biggest loser out of this very-Boston squabble will be the city’s own residents who rely on the bus — a disproportionate number of whom are black. According to one study, black riders spend 64 hours more per year on MBTA buses relative to their white counterparts.
Another study, by Livable Streets Alliance, a transportation advocacy group, found that Boston could improve the commutes of nearly 100,000 bus riders if the city would create dedicated lanes and prioritize traffic signals along seven miles of city streets, such as in parts of Blue Hill Avenue, Brighton Avenue, and Massachusetts Avenue.
Maybe Boston’s holdup isn’t about the paint but rather an excuse not to move forward with more dedicated lanes. It’s a headache explaining to small-business owners and others that giving up street parking to make room for bus-only routes will reduce gridlock. Much easier to let bus riders be late for work.
If Boston has a beef with the state about who should pay for transportation costs, don’t fight over paint. Instead fight for a seat on the MBTA control board or its successive governing body. That’s where the city can have its voice heard — not crying over spilled paint.