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Hub bus routes to get $100M makeover

Dan Devine

State and city officials gathered at Dudley Station on Monday to announce the appropriation of more than $100 million in federal stimulus funding to improve bus transportation in Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, an influx of money that politicians say will create construction jobs and cut congestion along heavily traveled routes.

Gov. Deval Patrick, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and other politicians joined transit advocates and community residents to announce the launch of the two-phase “bus rapid transit” (BRT) project, expected to cost $114 million, including $76 million dedicated specifically for construction.

“With smart, strategic use of federal recovery funds, we can bring rapid transit to some of Boston’s busiest bus routes, connecting key neighborhoods and delivering reliable service for tens of thousands of commuters who rely on the MBTA,” Patrick said.

Phase 1, slated to begin this fall, will create a direct connection for the Silver Line bus from Dudley Station to South Station. The project will also include the addition of bus-only lanes on Essex Street and a new street-level bus terminal at South Station.

The second phase, which will be implemented over the next three years, will replace the heavily-used 28 bus route between Mattapan Station and Ruggles Station, with BRT service that includes a direct Silver Line connection. New station facilities will also be built along Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan and Dorchester, and along Warren Street in Roxbury.

Other BRT features will include longer diesel-hybrid buses, technological advancements that will enable buses to bypass lines at stoplights, and upgrades to facilities at Dudley Station.

Lee Matsueda, an organizer with the T Riders Union, commended the Patrick administration for turning its attention to inner-city transit issues.

“We’re very excited that the stimulus money is going to be used in these communities, because for too long we’ve had to deal with slow, crowded service,” Matsueda said. “They’re clearly making a choice in terms of public transportation.”

One key point, Matsueda noted, is that the second phase of the project will be funded with a mixture of stimulus dollars initially intended for transit improvements and highway upgrades. That the state is repurposing highway funding for use on transit projects is heartening, according to Matsueda.

“It’s a sign that the Patrick administration is willing to invest in public transit, and in the environment and the economy,” he said.

Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry joined members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation in lauding the plan for its potential as an important source of job creation during a time of rising unemployment. The state’s jobless rate rose to 7.8 percent in March, an increase of more than 3 percent from last year.

Legislators also called the plan a necessary investment in a much-used resource.

“There were 10.7 billion trips on public transportation in 2008, and signs point to even greater use — and need — for mass transit in 2009,” said U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey. “These funds will help reinvigorate vital public transit lines just as record numbers of people are choosing to take public transit.”

According to the American Public Transportation Association’s ridership statistics for the fourth quarter of 2008, the MBTA has the sixth-highest bus ridership in the country, with an average weekday headcount of more than 347,000 riders.

While the T Riders Union responded positively to the upgrade funding, it did express some concerns, including the lack of a “public process … to determine what transit riders need and want.” The union called for the creation of a community advisory board to discuss how the two-phase plan should be implemented.

“Plans for improving public transit should come from a robust process of public involvement, not from unilateral announcements,” the union said.

Some also stressed the importance of ensuring that new jobs resulting from the influx of stimulus funds go to members of the communities where the work is being done.

“… I am looking forward to working with [the Patrick administration] to stretch every dollar for the maximum impact in the district and to make sure that local residents have access to the construction jobs created,” state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz said in a statement.

But the chief complaint raised by residents, as well as legislators like state Reps. Gloria Fox and Byron Rushing, is that no matter how many improvements are made, the Silver Line is still not the true rapid transit option that many have long clamored for in the Washington Street corridor.

“We call on the Patrick administration to begin the planning process to bring real rapid transit, rail transit, to the corridor by investing funds in planning a new rail line from downtown through Dudley Square and Dorchester to Mattapan,” the T Riders Union said. “It is time to plan transit by rail to connect that densely populated corridor to downtown.”

For his part, MBTA General Manager Daniel A. Grabauskas said he views the BRT expansion as an adjunct to “the tremendous success of the first phases of the Silver Line.”

The new transit investment is part of the “You Move Massachusetts” transportation initiative, which received feedback from transit riders who complained of slow, unreliable bus service. For more information on the BRT plan, visit http://www.mass.gov/eot.