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T-easing pollution
A series of air-clearing public-transit projects, mapped out in the early ’90s, remain controversial — and incomplete


» More on this story

More cards and cars: what's next for the MBTA. By Deirdre Fulton.
Our map of the proposed changes, including some we'd like to see.

The T: we love to hate it; we hate to take it; we take it everywhere. The nation’s first subway system has inspired songs ("The MTA Song" [Charlie on the MTA], "T DJ," and "Fuck the T"), Web sites (http://www.badtransit.com/, transportavenger.blogspot.com), and a general appreciation of functioning escalators. Over the next 10 years, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) will present us with more to sing about, and more to gripe about — from operational changes in how we pay our fares and what kinds of trains we ride (See "More Cards and Cars"), to the completion of long-planned system-wide expansions that could increase daily MBTA ridership and help the struggling agency climb out of debt, while improving both our public health and our transit experiences.

Boston’s minority communities suffer disproportionately from asthma, which is aggravated by heavy auto emissions. Congestion in the city, where close to one million commuters drive daily, is just getting worse. Upping T ridership, then, could lead to a healthier city.

But the MBTA — an independent state agency that serves more than 150 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts — cannot afford new projects. Fare revenues, about $275 million annually, bring in less than half of what is needed to operate the system, and massive debt, incurred through previous expansions, is estimated at around $4 billion.

Changes won’t be implemented by the MBTA alone, therefore, but by the state, which is currently planning expansions that will alter the T’s footprint in Greater Boston. These expansions — and their supposed benefits — have been a source of controversy for some 15 years already, and the debate isn’t over yet. The process will require compromise from the MBTA and the state, and realistic expectations all around.


In 1990, before breaking ground on the Big Dig, state officials struck a deal with the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, environmental advocates who were suing the state over concerns that the Big Dig would bring more cars — and more air pollution — to Boston. To comply with the federal Clean Air Act, the state agreed to a series of public-transit upgrades designed to mitigate such adverse environmental effects. These included expanding commuter-rail and parking services throughout the region, building the Silver Line, extending the Green Line into Somerville and Medford, connecting the Red and Blue lines (providing riders from East Boston and the North Shore with easy access to Massachusetts General Hospital and Cambridge), and restoring E-Line service through Jamaica Plain, along Centre and South Streets, all the way to Forest Hills.

The logic was simple: provide more, and more convenient, public transportation, and more people will leave their air-fouling cars at home.

But 15 years, several lawsuits, two Boston mayors, and five Massachusetts governors later, the Big Dig transit-system upgrades are still the source of public consternation and government deliberation. In August, the state’s Executive Office of Transportation (EOT) issued a new set of recommendations dealing with the administration’s remaining transit commitments. The EOT endorsed the Green Line extension that would stretch beyond Lechmere to Somerville’s Union Square (providing more convenient access to a bustling residential neighborhood that’s home to several bars and restaurants, and a Target), and then into Ball Square, Winter Hill, and West Medford. It also put its weight behind 1000 new commuter-rail parking spots and the expansion of the Fairmount, or "Indigo," Line, which would provide more stops and service to high-population areas of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.

But, along with the recommendations, the deadlines for all three projects were pushed back, and the Red-Blue connector and Arborway restoration were left conspicuously off the list entirely.

It seems as if there is still hope for the Red-Blue project, which EOT spokesman John Carlisle calls "a useful transit application to pursue in the future."

The Arborway trolley, however, seems doomed to be permanently replaced by #39 buses. "We heard overwhelming comments from local public-safety officials that they had very grave concerns about putting a trolley down that corridor," Carlisle says, adding that with new low-emission buses "we can accomplish better transit service with the same air-quality goals."

Now, it falls on the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to evaluate all of the EOT recommendations, solicit public comment (until January 17), and make a decision that could serve as the final word in the long debate over T-expansion plans.

The Conservation Law Foundation, meanwhile, is suing again, claiming that the altered transit plans leave the state in non-compliance with federal Clean Air Act obligations. They want the Arborway Restoration and the Red-Blue connector back on the table, and they advocate raising gas taxes to pay for transit projects.


At a late-December public hearing on the proposed projects at the DEP’s Downtown Crossing office, it was clear that time had not tempered the emotions of neighborhood advocates or public officials.

Somerville mayor Joseph Curtatone praised the "warm embrace of the Green Line project," but said that pushing scheduled completion back from 2011 to 2014 led to an "intolerable level of uncertainty" for his constituents.

State senator Jarrett Barrios invoked environmental justice, citing Chelsea, East Somerville, and Medford as places that deserve less pollution and a detailed project timeline. "[These communities] have waited too long for the Green Line extension to become a reality," Barrios wrote in a letter to the DEP commissioner. "These communities — Somerville in specific — suffer from extreme rates of air pollution due to I-93 traffic and diesel commuter-rail trains; an additional three years without mitigation is not acceptable."

Several representatives from the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation spoke in support of the Indigo Line; they were happy to see it on the list of recommendations, but irritated by the delay from 2008 to 2011. Indeed, with 15 years of evaluation and re-evaluation, missed deadlines seem irresponsible to many interested parties.

The most passionate speakers at the DEP’s public hearing came from Jamaica Plain, where a vocal coalition sees its hope for restoring the streetcar line fading fast.


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Issue Date: January 6 - 12, 2006
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