Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dorchester's mass transit

Prior to the days when the car became king of intra-city transportation options, most of Boston's neighborhoods were served by street cars. That tradition is perpetuated by the various Green lines and the Mattapan High-Speed, but every other route has been demolished and replaced by concrete meridians, most of them sterile concrete curbways in mid street where pedestrians must pause between lanes of traffic. Blue Hill Avenue is the most eye-displeasing example, especially on the Mattapan approach (or exit depending on whether you are heading inbound or out). Blue Hill Ave along much of its length is split by a wide expanse of raised cement that is dotted with light poles and ornamental planters at regular intervals. Despite the greenery that straggles over the brims of the pots, this is a dead zone that could be put to much better use.

The Dorchester Reporter, this part of Boston's paper of record, feautres a thoughtful assessment of the proposal for a mass transit upgrade along Blue Hill Avenue, that goes by either the unattractive or futuristic name, depending on your viewpoint, of 28X. This is basically an extensition of Silver Line type service from Ruggles to Mattapan Square by way of Dudley. I'm for it, but I think it needs a better name. I'm not in marketing but 'Silver Line South' or, more evocatively, 'Silver Line Zephyr' would be better names pointing to the relatively more efficient nature of the proposed service. Buses in dedicated lanes with enclosed stations would run more like trains than like the current Bus 28 route.

The Silver Line has a bad reputation in some circles, but I've always enjoyed using it. I've never taken it to Southie but I have taken it to the airport. Though this branch of the Silver Line is a mass transit option that seems to have been designed by a committee of camels, it gets to the airport in convenient, hassel-free time, even when most passengers are stowing oversized suitcases. I prefer taking the Washington Street branch to taking the Orange Line when I need to reach parts of Boston east of the South End proper. It's not an elevated train and it doesn't run through Eggleston Square all the way to Forest Hills (and I fault it for that) but it ably serves the areas it is designed to serve. It is also much quieter than a train, which is something the neighbors probably appreciate.

Much like the E Line was "Mayor Tobin's Baby," able to be constructed because of funding by an infusion of New Deal dollars, the construction of the 28X (can I call it the Silver Line Zephyr?) hinges on the support of federal funds available under another Democratic federal administration. Without the infusion of federal funding, Blue Hill Avenue may be serviced by more inexpensive, regular bus service for infinite years. Why is this proposal being green-lighted now? Because funds are available. This is not "Mayor Menino's Baby" however. Influence over mass transit has been stripped from local control and it a thing only indirectly addressed by mayoral canditates. There is no use discussing something over which you have little influence. Governor Patrick is the party responsible for putting this baby in the bath. I appreciate him doing it, but it highlights how much control Boston's 'strong mayor' has over developments in what should be his or her jurisdiction.

My advice: strike while the iron is hot. Upgrade when you can. Upgrade to a dedicated bus right-of-way and get the infrastructure in place. If demand exceeds supply, muti-car light rail will be easier to deploy in the future. A train line is an expensive thing to build. The tracks won't get laid on virgin land. Is there any virgin land left in Boston? I think dedicating a section of public thoroughfare to efficient public transportation will make future upgrades more palatable if and when they are needed. Contentious people will demand platinum service when they could settle for gold. It may not be 24-karat gold, but it will be something more than gold plate over cheap zinc. Niether Rome nor Mattapan Square were built in a day. Both are still works in progress, and both should take advantage of whatever opportunities are available to be viable for the next few decade. Given the chance to build on what you have on hand, roll the dice and wax.

28X will be an improvement over current bus service and it will also construct stations right now that will be a needed component of a more heavy-stock network should it be built in 2020. That will result in a cost savings and reduce the price tag should the decision be made to expand rail service to Blue Hill Avenue. Needless to say, a more efficient transit line along Blue Hill Ave. will provide some construction jobs and will provide easier access to the neighborhoods it serves, boosting businesses and raising potential property values. To those who are against improved service, I ask, "What are you afraid of?"

I once read a maxim that many people seem to subscribe to: "If you are over thirty years old and rely on the bus, you are a life failure." I haven't owned a car for more than twenty years but I know that car ownership is a part of the American dream. This is all very nice if you live on a farm or in the suburbs, but I, like most Dorchesterites live in a city. A car can be as much an inconvenience as it is a neccessity. City living isn't about driving. It is about interacting with your fellow citizens. City dwellers do it on the street when they walk, they should do it when they travel by every other means beside their feet, except by car. The bus allows it. 28X will do it with added convenience and efficiency.

In other related news, the Ashmont bus stops have been taken off Dot Ave. I noticed this two weeks ago when I went to Ashmont to take the Mattapan High-Speed Trolley to Lower Mills. I was amazed to see the amount of space dedicated to boarding and disembarking the many bus routes that serve Dorchester. Ashmont Station has been closed for construction since I moved to Boston two years ago. It seems to be an efficient arrangement off the main road. People bad mouth the MBTA. I have a few quibbles, but they are too few to mention. Having lived in a city with hourly bus service that wended its way to take an hour to travel three miles on some routes and an hour to travel ten miles on others, how can I complain about the MBTA's schedule?

Dorchester is blessed by the past investments in the Dorchester Tunnel and the Red Line, the Mattapan High-Speed. It is hard to walk away from the costs that were sunk to build this infrastructure and the benefits that still accrue from them keep this part of Boston vital and active. Dorchester isn't written off as a backwater because it is still an interconnected part of the city's fabric by industrially engineered mass transit lines. The more the better. The more capital outlays, the less anyone wants to abandon the past expense. It's already built, we may as well use it. Dorchester is one of the most vital parts of Boston because it is one of the most well connected. It cannot be ignored. Anyone who looks at an MBTA subway map can see that.

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