In 2009, the new black president and black governor at the helm planned a historic investment of more than $100 million to transform Black Boston’s backbone, Blue Hill Avenue, with new bus lanes and a flow of redesigned traffic – but this proved unpopular among locals. and went nowhere.
Now, with a new approach and a new infusion of $15 million in guaranteed federal funding for the project, the city wants to try again — listening to voters along the way.
“It was really easy to say, ‘Hey look, we have tons of bus passengers, a marginalized black community, Barack Obama was president, absolutely take the money, build this now,'” said Julia Wallerce, manager from the Boston program for the Institute for Transportation and Policy Development, about the doomed 28X project, which ended when local politicians called for the funds to be cancelled.
“There’s a very big difference between ‘shovel-ready’ and ‘shovel-worthy’,” she continued. “Was the shovel ready?” Sure, from an engineering perspective, but from a political and social justice perspective? Absolutely not. That’s how it failed, and it was a lesson well learned.
At the time, area residents felt caught off guard by the project, and many felt they had not been consulted, leading many area residents to become suspicious of the MBTA and its proposed projects.
“The MBTA doesn’t exactly have a great reputation in my community,” said Fatima Ali-Salaam, president of the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council.
At-Large Councilwoman Julia Mejia said more and more people had started hearing about the new project proposal over the past few months and had tweeted and texted her, seeking responses about the project and feeling “ignored,” she said.
Hearing the concern, Mejia helped organize a series of listening sessions, including some for children and teenagers, to allow everyone to voice their concerns. She also suggested spreading the word to local businesses like hair salons, laundromats, churches and nail salons to solicit feedback.
“The mistrust comes from those who weren’t part of any of these conversations,” Mejia said. “They see themselves as those who will be most affected, but they don’t feel like they’ve had a say in the process. So rebuilding that trust requires us to do a little extra work.
Ali-Salaam recounted the problems plaguing Blue Hill Avenue, which stretches three miles from Grove Hall in Dorchester through Roxbury to Mattapan Square, including inadequate crosswalks near public transport, traffic lights crossing too fast and many traffic jams. She saw several elderly and disabled people struggling to cross the street.
“Down by the Public Garden, that’s not the only place in town you’re supposed to go and be safe,” she said.
In a listening session last month at Morningstar Church in Mattapan, Boston Street Leader Jascha Franklin-Hodge listed the stats: In 2021, there were “tens” of injury accidents in the region, and “hundreds” over five years, as well as 60 injured on foot and more than a dozen injured on bicycles.
“It’s not safe and it’s not acceptable,” he said.
The federal government’s $15 million investment is only a slice of the total $40-60 million price tag, he added. “There are very few places where we have the chance to put that kind of investment in a neighborhood.”
Last week, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced that three bus routes along Blue Hill Ave., 23, 28 and 29, will be free under a two-year pilot program, and set highlights the redevelopment project of Blue Hill Ave.
“We’re really looking to have a community-led design that would ensure our buses move quickly and reliably,” she said of the route, which before the pandemic carried more than 20,000. passengers per day.
U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley, D-Boston, who played a key role in securing federal funds late last year, said in a statement that “redesigning the Blue Hill Ave. corridor while making free routes 23, 28 and 29 is a major, multi-level victory for residents of Dorchester, Mattapan and Roxbury who depend on public transit to access jobs, food, healthcare and other resources essentials,” she said. “Transit justice is racial and economic justice.”
Despite these initial efforts to raise awareness, residents still have concerns. Fiex Thevenin, the co-owner of popular smoothie and juice bar Mattapan Cafe Juice Up, worries most about a central bus lane eliminating parking near his business. He also questioned whether a bus-only lane – even designed with features such as fast boarding and its own lane to reduce traffic – would be the best choice, listing trams and trains as potential ideas.
“It’s something that we as business owners and residents should be better off saying, ‘This is what we think is right,'” he said. but at the same time, it just has to be done well.”