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Neponset River Trail needs MBTA crossing

Kenneth J. Cooper | 7/12/2011, 10:56 p.m.

The MBTA and state Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) are trying to work out one final issue to clear the way for the proposed extension of a walking and biking path that appears likely to be constructed mostly on the Mattapan side of the Neponset River.

Richard Davey, general manager of the MBTA, said the mass transit agency has agreed to all but one request from the DCR, which has been planning the extension of the Neponset River Trail. For safety reasons, the MBTA has balked at the proposed path crossing the trolley tracks near Mattapan Station at ground level.

Community activists fear that the MBTA’s decision could block the extension from running along the river bank in Mattapan, but Davey said the MBTA and the DCR were exploring about a half-dozen alternatives to an at-grade crossing. The most obvious, an elevated bridge over the trolley’s tracks, could up the estimated $4 million cost of extending the trail from Central Avenue in Milton to Mattapan Square.

Last October, the department took by eminent domain and paid $400,000 for a closed furniture store near Mattapan Station, according to records at the Suffolk County Register of Deeds. The department’s Stewardship Council authorized the “friendly taking” of the former Eastwood Furniture Store at 1674-1680 Blue Hill Ave. to create “a gateway to the Neponset River Reservation for an under-served urban population,” a reference to Mattapan.

Vivien Morris, chairperson of the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition, cited state Department of Public Health figures showing “Mattapan has the highest obesity rate of any community” in Massachusetts, with 70 percent of the neighborhood’s adults overweight. She criticized the MBTA’s opposition to the trail crossing the trolley tracks.

“We residents of Mattapan take this as one more example of insensitivity to our needs and a continuation of disinvestment in our community,” Morris wrote in a June 8 letter to state Rep. Russell Holmes, who lives in Mattapan.

At a public meeting last month in Mattapan Square, residents of Mattapan, Dorchester and Milton also complained to MBTA officials about the agency’s opposition to an at-grade crossing for the extended trail.

“For you guys to say you don’t want any more at-grade crossings, when you have five or six, is ridiculous,” Ellie Spring of Dorchester said.

“It’s not the Acela going down to D.C.,” said Thomas Buchan of Milton, contrasting the speedy Amtrak train to the slow-moving Mattapan trolley.

In a telephone interview, Davey said trolley “traffic coming outbound would be a concern” because the trains would be accelerating. “It’s the policy of the T, in fact, to reduce the number of crossings we have,” he added.

The state Department of Public Utilities and Federal Transit Administration, which regulate the MBTA on safety issues, generally “discourage the proliferation of crossings,” Davey said. The agencies have not addressed the proposed trail crossing. Davey said the MBTA wants the “safest possible” crossing that serves both Mattapan and Milton.

MBTA spokeswoman Lydia Rivera provided accident reports showing three collisions occurred on the Mattapan line between September 2010 and last month — all on Central Avenue and all involving vehicles.

Except for emergency vehicles and state maintenance trucks, motorized vehicles are not allowed on the Neponset River Trail. Davey said an at-grade crossing would pose risks not only to pedestrians, but also to bicyclists moving at higher speeds than people on foot.

A solution to the impasse is needed for the trail’s extension to end in Mattapan Square close to the $400,000 property that the Department of Conservation and Recreation has purchased from 1674 Blue Hill Avenue, LLC. The two buildings at the corner of River Street and Blue Hill Avenue had been on the market for a total of $475,000.

S.J. Port, DCR press secretary, did not fulfill repeated requests made over several weeks for information about the intended functions of the gateway or the current status of the proposed trail extension.

Davey said the MBTA has agreed to give potential rights-of-way to the department near Eliot Street in Milton. The short street runs parallel to the end of the existing trail at Central Avenue.