City moves ahead with center-running bus lane plan for Blue Hill Avenue

A rendering from a 2022 presentation shows how a center-running bus lane might be positioned along Blue Hill Avenue near the Mattapan Branch Library. Mayor Wu and US Rep. Pressley— two prominent supporters of the idea— say that any final designs will be made in future meetings with neighbors, merchants, and other stakeholders. City of Boston image

The city of Boston is moving ahead with a controversial plan to implement a center-running bus lane on Blue Hill Avenue as part of a massive re-design that Mayor Wu and other policy leaders say will positively transform the corridor from Grove Hall to Mattapan Square.

The $44 million overhaul will involve building out the center lane bus infrastructure starting in 2026, with new sidewalks, signals, crosswalks, and other amenities coming as soon as this spring. Costs will be borne by $18 million in city funds, $11 million in MBTA funding, and $15 million from a federal RAISE grant.

Also on tap for this spring are block-by-block planning meetings for the center running bus route as a way to “customize” each area of the corridor. No project completion date has been given.

The news was announced at a virtual press conference on Tuesday afternoon, which included Wu and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who has been instrumental in getting the federal dollars lined up.

“We’ve all been working for a very long time on trying to move forward and this is a major day where we’re eager and excited to share that this $44 million project…will proceed with a multi-modal design for the Blue Hill Avenue corridor with a dedicated bus lane,” said Wu. “The best place for that dedicated bus lane to actually have impact is a center running lane…We know it will make a huge impact to predictability and having more streamlined, efficient commutes for everyone trying to get around on this corridor, and safer for all road users in a multi-modal way.”

For her part, Pressley said she was happy to see the money used for those who need it most – transit and bus riders.

“The Blue Hill Avenue corridor is finally receiving the attention and funding to match the burden that it has carried as a critical transportation lifeline for communities in Boston…I’m proud to have helped deliver the federal funding requested, $15 million,” she said, echoing that the status quo “is not acceptable and it must change.

“I want to underscore this is not an announcement of a final design,” she continued. “The city is committing to a block-by-block engagement strategy to examine the small details that make a huge difference.” She acknowledged that there is a lot of work to do in upcoming meetings in “building and strengthening trust with community in the final design of this transformation.”

Added Chief of Streets Jascha Franklin-Hodge, “There is nowhere else in the MBTA system where a transformational street investment can make such a difference in the lives of so many people. This isn’t just about the stats; it’s about time lost and the impact that has on peoples’ lives…The key decision we are announcing today is the inclusion of center running bus lanes along the length of this corridor.”

He noted that center bus lanes not only reduce ride times, but also provide a more “comfortable and dignified experience” for those waiting on the bus.

The Wu administration has been conducting meetings and soliciting input on this project for several years through online meetings, social gatherings at local venues, sidewalk pop-up information sessions, and traditional in-person sessions. The upgrade and investment to Blue Hill Avenue is largely seen as positive, but putting a center-running bus lane and bike lanes along the corridor has drawn mixed reactions and some opposition from other elected officials and residents.

A city-commissioned report summarizing the community process that was published last September cited a lack of trust in city government and fears about displacement of current residents as among the project’s chief hurdles.

But Wu and other supporters of the plan point to the 37,000 bus riders who travel up and down Blue Hill Avenue every day, which makes it more active than any branch of the Green Line and one of the busiest transit corridors in the state.

Throughout the process, the city has estimated that more than 50 percent of the travelers on Blue Hill Avenue are riding buses. The city also noted that it can take up to one hour to get from Grove Hall to Mattapan Square by bus right now, and the center running bus lane could whittle that down to 25 minutes.

They also point to what they termed the dangerous nature of the corridor for drivers, where on average, they said, there is a crash requiring a response from Boston EMS ambulances every three days – a rate in the top three percent of Boston’s streets. The new multimodal design, they said, would simultaneously address these safety concerns, make traffic flow smoother, and increase demand for the use of the buses.

On the call, state Rep. Russell Holmes said that for 15 years there have been studies that all pointed to a busway, and now is the time to move forward with it.

“We now have to be focused on the transit-dependent riders along the Avenue,” he said. “Buses get no respect, and you can see that for the 37,000 riders along Blue Hill Avenue every day. You see it when folks double park and riders have to enter the bus on the street…It is about thinking of the transit and bus rider on an equal playing field…It shouldn’t be that the road is designed principally for people to travel [by car] through our neighborhoods.”

In other responses to the announcement, Amanda Lawson, a Boston Latin Academy student, noted that the bus is the only way for high school students to get to school. “As a student who relies on the bus to get to school, I experience delays, and crowded and unreliable buses on Blue Hill Avenue every day. I’m excited to see what is possible through this redesign so that all of us can have a safer, easier ride to school,” she said.

District 5 Councilor Enrique Pepen said the investment is for those who want to cross the street safely or get to Nubian Station from Mattapan “in a timely manner.”

And City Council President Ruthzee Louijeune alluded to the displacement concerns surrounding the project. “There’s a fear, especially in Black and Brown communities, that this infrastructure change is not for us but meant to displace us,” she said. “That’s why it’s incredibly important that as we work toward a better Blue Hill Avenue…we also let people know that we’re working on deep investments in housing.”

Elected officials whose districts touch Blue Hill Avenue but who were not at the online press conference or didn’t provide comments of support, were District 4 Councillor Brian Worrell, District 7 Councillor Tania Fernandes Anderson, state Reps. Brandy Fluker Oakley and Chris Worrell, state Sens. Nick Collins and Liz Miranda, and At-large Councillors Julia Mejia, Erin Murphy, and Henry Santana.

Mattapan’s Vivian Ortiz, known as the “Bike Mayor” of Boston, said it was time that her community got amenities other communities already have.
“I look forward to the day when we celebrate the fact that Blue Hill Avenue is now redesigned and friendly for everyone to use,” she said.

Three business owners along Blue Hill Avenue were listed as proponents by the city in a press release, including Kevin Canty of Walnut Deluxe Cleaners (700 Blue Hill Ave.), Tim Francis of P&R Ice Cream (1284 Blue Hill Ave.), and Leon Mulrain of Grove Hall Cleaners (491 Blue Hill Ave.).

“As a business owner along the Blue Hill Avenue corridor, I feel like there will be a significant boost in foot traffic once the sidewalks and lighting conditions are improved,” said Mulrain.

The public input process is not complete, and the city said it would continue meeting with stakeholders this spring to determine the allocation of space along the curb in a block-by-block fashion. They said they believe from preliminary design work that there is ample space for all modes of transportation and the ability to retain curbside parking along most of the corridor.

Residents will be asked to weigh in on the “right mix” of parking spaces, loading zones, travel lanes, bike facilities, expanded pedestrian areas, and green space. The meetings will be announced soon, city officials said on Tuesday.

Beyond the larger ticket item of the center bus lane, the project has also focused on safer pedestrian conditions with wider sidewalks, more crosswalks, substantially increasing the trees on the corridor, installing bicycle lanes, and bringing in improved street lighting, benches, and public art. Using the near-term strategy and the long-term strategy for construction, some of the immediate concerns brought up during meetings could be rectified as soon as this spring.

As the final roadway design is completed, “state of good repair” work will begin this spring to refresh crosswalks, paint new pavement markings, improve streetlights, repave damaged sections of the roadway, make sidewalk repairs, fill potholes, and install speed humps on adjacent neighborhood streets.

For bus riders, the near-term strategy will include installing new shade structures and green roofs on existing bus shelters – looking to be “climate ready” and mitigate summer heat and heavy rainfall.

During the press conference, a question was raised about the number of people who don’t agree with the plan and have been vocal about it.

“Whenever we’re making these decisions, I try to get 7 out of 10 people to agree and I believe 7 out of 10 of us have come to agreement on the center running bus lane,” said Holmes. “What I have learned is that the loudest people are the 3 of 10 on the edges of an issue…What I love about the folks that are the loudest…is that they make sure we look at everything.”

Added Wu, “We have to find a way to move more people more effectively on the same space we already have in our streets. Unlike other cities that have a lot more land, we have what we have…Sometimes it feels like the street changed and traffic got bad at the same time, but in fact the planning to make the street better and move people more effectively happened pre-pandemic.”

Though the RAISE grant did come with expectations of job creation, Franklin-Hodge said there wasn’t any industry or company the project would service. Instead, he said, the project will make the entire corridor more attractive to new and existing small businesses.

“The biggest economic development opportunity we see here is to create a place that better supports local business and helps the businesses there today grow and thrive…and to create a place where entrepreneurs say, ‘This is where I want to be,’” he said.

Tuesday’s announcement complements the free bus fare program that was recently extended by the city on the Blue Hill Avenue corridor for Routes 28 and 29.