Friday, April 26, 2013

A better idea for Melnea Cass Boulevard

Chicago is proposing a conversion of a portion of one of its busiest bus routes to BRT. The street is 70' wide curb-to-curb and currently has 4 travel lanes, 2 parking lanes, and a median/turning lane in the center. The bus lanes will be created by taking 2 travel lanes and the center median; left turns will be prohibited. There will be off-board ticketing and signal priority to keep buses moving along.

Ashland Avenue proposal (source)
Compare that to the proposed Melnea Cass Boulevard bus lanes:

Melnea Cass Boulevard proposal (source: 3-6-13 presentation)
It's not entirely comparable -- CTA plans to use buses with doors on both sides -- but the Chicago proposal looks much more neighborhood friendly, and the street much safer to be around.

Melnea Cass Boulevard is much wider than Ashland Avenue, but the sidewalks are much smaller in the Boston proposal. The buses here will have to contend with left-turning traffic, unlike Ashland Avenue. And finally, the Melnea Cass proposal is for a very short segment of the handful of bus routes that use it, whereas the Chicago proposal starts with a ~6 mile segment and will eventually extend to a full 16 mile route. Here, if the Urban Ring were ever to be built using BRT, then the initial tiny segment would become something more significant. But widening would hurt the community along the Melnea Cass corridor permanently, even if it were to get transit service befitting an urban location. This Chicago proposal is a better model for a busy urban corridor in a well-developed American city.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Senate transportation bill

The version of the transportation financing bill passed yesterday by the State Senate is an improvement on the House version. The key features are an immediate increase in the gasoline excise tax by 3 cents, the annual indexing of the tax to inflation (by CPI), an increase in cigarette taxes, an investigation into the sale of naming rights to stations, a commitment to obtain revenue from utility easements on public rights-of-way, and a cap on fare hikes of no more than 5% every 2 years. There are also some other interesting aspects that have not been discussed as widely.

  • A "value capture commission" to study the best practices of other jurisdictions regarding how to obtain benefits from public investment in transportation, then to submit a report with recommendations. This was also present in the House version, although I missed it before writing my critique a few days ago. The usefulness of this provision will depend on how well it is implemented; it seems pretty weak, though, and I don't think it really addresses my concern about land use. But it is something.
  • Explicit identification of the Green Line Extension and South Coast Rail as priorities.
  • The creation of a report discovering and describing fare evasion statistics, as well as methods to address the problem.
  • Language allowing for a "high occupancy toll lane" facility to be developed.
  • A study of taxicab markets and needs in the Commonwealth.
  • A premium parking pilot program in select MBTA parking garages; this allows users to pay a higher fee for a guaranteed, convenient parking space.
  • Calls for the MBTA to issue a request for proposals from business, civic, and non-profit entities to enter into sponsorship agreements for providing late night transportation services.
  • Allows for tolling facilities to be constructed on the various highways as they cross over into Massachusetts from neighboring states.
  • The Underground Storage tank fee would also be indexed to inflation annually (by CPI).
We will have to wait and see what the conference committee comes up with and whether that is acceptable to Governor Patrick.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

This week in transportation funding

This week is big for transportation funding in the Commonwealth. The state senate and the state house will be discussing the legislature's proposal for funding that was offered in opposition to the Governor's plan, "The Way Forward." Presumably they will be coming up with a plan going forward to close the operating deficits of both the highway and transit divisions of MassDOT, as well as finding funds for some capital improvement projects; although the details of those projects may be determined later.

Plenty has already been written about the competing plans, and there's even a Walk/Bike Summit at the State House tomorrow. Obviously, I support fixes to the broken state of MBTA funding, and improvements to walking, bicycling and transit state-wide. So I'm largely in favor of the Governor's plan, although with the notable exception of South Coast Rail. Also, I have a problem with the way Chapter 90 road funds are handed out, because it favors rural parts of the state disproportionately. And I do like the legislative plan to index the gas tax to inflation.

I just wanted to bring up the fact that throughout this discussion, there's been pretty much no attention paid towards land use planning in conjunction with transportation planning. There's been separate initiatives, like Menino's Housing Boston 2020, but for some reason there's a disconnect between that and transit planning. This is not to say that there aren't people out there thinking about them in conjunction; there are, such as MAPC and MA-SmartGrowth. But the connection doesn't seem to have made the leap to the legislature.

I'll give an example: the Green Line extension is a legally-mandated Big Dig mitigation project. The current proposal before the legislature endangers the Federal funding support, which would double the cost that the Commonwealth has to bear. This is exceptionally short-sighted. But it's even more short-sighted when you realize that the Green Line extension, in combination with McGrath Highway grounding, will completely revitalize and regenerate a whole section of Somerville that is currently in bad shape. That's a whole lot of benefits -- housing, business, quality of life, revenue -- which are simply not being considered by the legislature when making tunnel-vision decisions about transportation alone.

Now it's true that legislators probably do have some of this in their head while working on the bill. At least, I hope so. And Somerville has their SomerVision plan which lays out their intentions. But it should be part of the bill. We the taxpayers, the citizens of the Commonwealth, are going to invest in transportation improvements for certain areas (not just Somerville, of course). In return, we want something for that investment. We want more housing units, more jobs, more opportunities, in some combination and form, all of which leverages this transportation investment we are making.

I say this because we've seen large transportation projects completed in the past which did not see complementary development, and thus wasted their potential.

Across the street from Roxbury Crossing MBTA station
The Southwest Corridor is one of the most egregious examples. A large swathe of Roxbury was destroyed to clear a path for the never-built Inner Belt and Southwest Expressways. And then, instead, the Orange Line was relocated to that path. But then, for the past few decades, so much of the land has remained vacant and empty.

There's also the long stretches of Commonwealth Avenue which are devoted to low intensity uses like automobile body shops and parking lots, despite being Green Line adjacent. Or the empty vistas immediately adjacent to Maverick Square station, apparently owned by MassPort but lying fallow. Or the billions of dollars spent on Commuter Rail expansion which ultimately ended up being a glorified parking lot shuttle. The Big Dig remains a large question mark; will we ultimately see development along the former corridor, or will it remain the world's most expensive median strip?

So I hope that funding levels will be higher than the current legislative proposal. But I also hope that when it comes time to evaluate the different projects, that the disbursement of the funds will be contingent on local land use and zoning reforms which will make it worthwhile.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The MBTA expands westward

The MBTA's fresh new logo
Feeling a little let down by Spring? Dreary of being drenched by April showers? Perhaps you're tired of high housing prices for small apartments, traffic congestion wherever you go, and fighting for a parking space when you get there? Are you just itching for a little sun and some desert fun? Or is West Roxbury just not "West" enough for you? Whatever the reason, the MBTA has just expanded its service to a whole new area.

It's a veritable NIMBY paradise:

  • No buildings taller than 2 stories, so you won't feel "menaced" while walking near them.
  • Plenty of setback from the road.
  • Shadows are basically non-existent.
  • Lots of "greenspace" in the form of palm trees, cacti and scrub bushes.
  • Ample free parking. Always.
  • Approximately zero congestion. All intersections operate at level of service "A" or "B".
  • You may not ever see your neighbors; much less hear them.
  • Beautiful mountain scenery.
So what are you waiting for? Just hop on the Route 1 bus.