OP-ED: Sen. Brownsberger’s Update on Proposed MBTA Bus Changes

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The following piece was provided by State Sen. Will Brownsberger, who represents Watertown, Belmont and parts of Boston.

The MBTA has been listening carefully to public feedback about the47 cost-neutral bus route changes that service planners are proposing across the region. Attheir meeting on April 8, the MBTA’s board offered a “sense of the board” supporting36 of the proposals.

Board members deferred final approval to give themselves time to review in full detail the equity analysis for the whole package. When final approval is provided, as appears likely, the package will be the most significant set of route changes in memory.

The MBTA fields almost all of its bus fleet at rush hour. The fleet size, roughly 1000 buses, is constrained by available storage and maintenance facilities. The MBTA is engaged ina planning process for more storage and maintenance capacity.

Until the fleet can grow, service improvements at rush hour have to come mostly from moving buses, not adding buses. The47 proposed route changesare mostly simplifications designed to allow the allocation of finite rush hour resources to service more riders. This does mean taking service away from a smaller group of riders.

For example, onthe 74 in Belmont andthe 64 in Brighton, planners propose to eliminate short detours in the routes that add stops closer to some passengers. Those passengers will have a longer walk to the main line of the route, but, according to the planners’ modeling, on balance, more people will benefit by the shortening of the route. Shortening a route, by reducing time required for each cycle, allows more frequent service all along the route.

The MBTA’s outreach has been extensive and while some riders may remain unaware of the proposed changes, it seems clear that the outreach has been sufficient to generate a diverse body of comments on each proposal. The MBTA hasreceived over 3500 comments on their proposals, including over 150 on the 74/75 changes and over 50 on the 64 changes. As to those particular changes, in both instances, the comments have been slightly positive on average. The proposedroute changes for the 70 and 70A in Watertownwas one of the most popular changes, with a clear favorable response.

It does appear that the MBTA has carefully reviewed all of the comments. Their initial proposals were based on careful ridership analysis, but the comments surfaced considerations that had not previously been identified. As a result, they held 11 proposals back and modified 9 others.

The 64, 70/70A and 74/75 route changes are all amongthe 36 proposals for which final approval is expected.The 74/75 route change wasone of 16 that received deeper re-analysisby the team based on the extensive and conflicting feedback.

As the T moves forward to implement these cost-neutral changes, they will also be moving forward on two longer term directions. First, they continue to work with municipalities that are ready to create more bus lanes and/or to implement transit signal priority for buses. For example, there has been a lot of public conversation about the Brighton Ave 57 bus lane, which the T is eager to implement.

Second, they will bestudying travel patterns to ask how the bus network could be remodeled to better serve the public.The MBTA’s routes have been very stable over the years, even as jobs and housing have concentrated in new areas. The MBTA will be analyzing anonymized cell phone data to better understand the travel needs of the broader public — not just their current riders.

They will also be developing a set of network performance metrics so they can evaluate possibilities for completely new routes, either as cost-neutral changes that would mean eliminating some routes, or service additions that would likely need to wait for expanded bus maintenance facilities.

The network redesign work is primarily analytic at this stage, so there will not be extensive new outreach, but when it leads to new proposals, there will be wide public discussion. The intention is to offer pilot redesign proposals on a medium-term basis as opposed to waiting for a single final proposal.

My overall sense is that the MBTA is moving forward thoughtfully with progressive changes in bus routing based on respectful engagement with the public and a principled analysis of all available data.

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