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Melnea Cass widening project raises resident questions, concerns

Sandra Larson | 3/14/2013, 9:03 a.m.
Attendees listen during a question-and-answer session at a March 6 meeting on the Melnea Cass Boulevard redesign project, while neighborhood activists display a 40-foot string of complaints about the project. Photo by Sandra Larson

At a public meeting hosted by the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) last week, Roxbury residents, activists and local elected officials raised sharp questions about a plan to widen Melnea Cass Boulevard in order to add new center median bus lanes and stations.

A group called Friends of Melnea Cass Boulevard stretched a 40-foot string across the meeting room to illustrate how much extra width the new bus lanes will demand. The group’s members decried the expected removal of mature trees and the increased distance for pedestrians crossing the busy street.

“I don’t see how this is going to make the road safer,” said Yvonne Lalyre, a Lower Roxbury resident who held one end of the string. “Who wants a widened road in their backyard?”

The new bus lanes are part of an overall redesign plan for Melnea Cass Boulevard, under discussion since October, 2011. The BTD is the lead agency among a group of city and state agencies involved in the project, funded with roughly $9 million in federal and state money along with $600,000 in city of Boston funds. The intent is to integrate the goals of Boston’s “Complete Streets” initiative, the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan (RSMP), and the state-led Urban Ring project that includes a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor linking Roxbury and other Greater Boston communities.

The March 6 meeting was the fifth public meeting since project planning began in fall 2011. Patrick Hoey, BTD senior transportation planner and director of this project, has been moderating the meetings.

At previous meetings, the project’s team of transportation engineering, bicycle planning and landscape architecture experts explained the “Complete Streets” strategy, which adds pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly features. In small-group breakout sessions, there was wide agreement that Melnea Cass Boulevard is now inhospitable to pedestrians, poorly lit at night and a litter-strewn eyesore in some parts. Many consider the street a barrier separating the Dudley Square area from Lower Roxbury and the South End.

The project team also presented options for placement of new BRT lanes, either on the sides or in the center. Although the full implementation of the Urban Ring is currently on hold due to Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) and MBTA funding shortages, the Melnea Cass redesign plans still incorporate dedicated bus lanes for future BRT service.

But many in the community only realized recently how much wider the street would have to be to accommodate everything, said Kay Mathew, a member of Friends of Melnea Cass Boulevard who recently co-authored a letter to local news outlets protesting the street widening.

“They never talked about widening,” she said after the meeting. “In all the talk about ‘complete streets,’ the elephant in the room was the addition of two more lanes. It’s now been made clear that that will be the impact.”

Project diagrams shown at the meeting and viewable online confirm a roughly 40-foot expansion of the street. The proposed design includes two traffic lanes in each direction, two center BRT lanes, a tree-lined center median, a street parking lane on some blocks, improved sidewalks and crosswalks and a bicycle-only path.