On the wrong track

By  |  January 18, 2006

Heaven knows that the Phoenix is a staunch supporter of most mass-transit efforts, but plans to resume trolley service from Arborway Station in Jamaica Plain along Centre Street just don’t make sense when all of the factors are considered.

It is true that the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority promised to reinstate trolley service as part of an agreement with environmental groups that were understandably concerned that the completion of the Big Dig would result in more automobile traffic into the city of Boston and, as a result, in more air pollution.

When that promise was made more than 10 years ago, it struck many informed observers as more convenient than realistic.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that state officials agreed — perhaps cynically — to bring back trolley service in the hopes of eventually reversing themselves at a more convenient time.

Well, the time to make a final decision is almost upon us and the fact is that auto congestion along Centre Street is even more intense now than it was years ago.

That’s because Jamaica Plain, like parts of Dorchester, Roslindale, and East Boston, has enjoyed a rebirth. The JP renaissance has been longer in the making and the neighborhood change more complete. The newer, often younger residents are for the most part more affluent than the older blue-collar residents and, as a result, JP households include more cars.

Centre Street serves as a neighborhood business center. The trolley line services the central city far more than its immediate neighborhood, taking passengers from what is essentially an urban township into downtown areas. It would be nice if it could be argued that the trolley will take cars heading for the central city off the streets. But that’s more wish than reality.

The reality is that trolleys running along Centre Street will make already congested traffic even worse. Most of the cars moving down JP’s main thoroughfare have business in the neighborhood, not downtown. As things now stand, parking in the area is inadequate at times of peak demand. The small, independently owned businesses in the neighborhood already face a squeeze. But it’s a squeeze they’ve learned to live with. Making it worse, however, would hurt the valuable commercial services they provide. In addition to hurting small, local businesses, the congestion would not decrease air pollution. It can be argued that stalled, idling cars can be as much — if not more — of a problem.

That is not to say the #39 bus that services the area and connects with Copley Square is an adequate solution. Service needs to be improved in a number of ways (see Deirdre Fulton, “T-easing Pollution,” page 16). But even if bus service is maximized, the overall situation will be far from perfect.

JP’s dilemma illustrates how an old, congested city like Boston has to wrestle with a number of competing factors in an effort to take even a stab at an imperfect but workable solution. A heartfelt and noble desire to resume trolley service is a better idea in theory than in fact.


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