Wednesday, November 25, 2009

“Sometimes we have to move quickly to get things done"

The federal government is scrambling to distribute billions and billions of "stimulus funds" as part of President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. States are scrambling to attract their share of those funds which are targeted for projects that are "shovel ready", i.e. must be able to be completed within a specified period of time.

Unfortunately community process and thoughtful project design can be short-circuited in this high stakes competition for federal dollars. As a result some important (and needed) projects face stiff opposition from residents. (GW)

No agreement, no $147m upgrade

State scraps effort to seek US funding for bus line

By Meghan E. Irons
Boston Globe
November 20, 2009

Massachusetts has missed an opportunity to tap into as much as $147 million in grant money available under the federal stimulus package because of a deep disagreement between the Patrick administration and residents of Roxbury and Mattapan.

State transportation officials had applied for the grant over the summer to upgrade public transportation from Dudley Square into Mattapan along Blue Hill Avenue, through two of the city’s most impoverished areas, by dedicating a lane of traffic to rapid bus service.

But the proposal immediately met a strong backlash from residents, who were angry that the state did not heed their views on the project’s design, which called for removal of a median on Blue Hill Avenue for the designated bus lane. The median provides a safe respite for pedestrians crossing the wide and busy street and adds an aesthetic appeal, with its trees and planters, to an area otherwise bound by pavement and concrete.

Under intense neighborhood pressure, the state ultimately withdrew the application and lost any chance of competing for a slice of $1.5 billion in grant money made available for transit projects under the stimulus program.

“We just were not able to get the community support within the time allowed to compete effectively,’’ said state Secretary of Transportation Jeffrey B. Mullan.

Mullan acknowledged that the state’s “rocky start’’ with residents handicapped its chances to seek stimulus money for underserved areas, but said the state had to act quickly to get projects off the ground.

Former transportation secretary James A. Aloisi Jr., who helped devise the plan before leaving office last month, called the neighborhood’s rejection of the proposal “a lost opportunity.’’

“I explained this millions of times,’’ Aloisi said this week in a phone interview. “Sometimes we have to move quickly to get things done. But we are used to delay in this state. When you have people like me saying you had to act fast, people don’t know what do with that.’’

Community leaders say they would rather forgo the chance of getting the money than embrace a project they did not want. They said a designated bus lane in the middle of Blue Hill Avenue would divide their community and create a host of navigation problems for commuters and pedestrians.

“You cannot cross Blue Hill Avenue without that median,’’ said Michael Kozu, a community advocate who offered advice to the state. “What they were going to do is divide our community, so that people won’t be able to cross.’’

While the proposal would have made the trip from Dudley Square to Mattapan much quicker, it would have also eliminated certain stops, parking spaces, and left turns, creating inconveniences for drivers, as well as riders.

But along Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan and Roxbury yesterday, riders who had not previously heard of the proposed project were astonished at the missed chance for stimulus cash in their community, where most residents rely on public transit.

“That doesn’t make any sense to me,’’ said Mary Hines, a Brockton resident who works in Dudley Square and is a regular bus rider. “Why wouldn’t they go for the money to improve bus services?’’

While there is now no clear source of funding, Mullan said that he is convening a team to work with neighborhood leaders to ensure that the proposed project eventually happens and to address issues that arose during a series of community meetings.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly known as the stimulus bill, the state received $757 million to use at its discretion for urban and regional transit projects, as well as for highways and bridges. Another $1.5 billion is available through 2011 under the new Recovery Act program, which allows states to compete for grants for public transit projects.

Governor Deval Patrick, with much fanfare but little public notice, first proposed using the first pool of stimulus money to bring speedy bus service to the corridor by 2012. The rapid bus service would replace Bus Route No. 28. In addition to removal of the median, the money would have paid for changes in traffic signals, improved bus stops and stations, and allowed acquisition of 60-foot articulated buses for the route.

But a previous lack of communication with the community required officials to spend their time defending their actions, instead of moving the plan ahead.

As a result, there was not enought time to woo some residents, neighborhood supporters of the proposal say.

“There were people who dug their feet in, and they couldn’t hear much after that,’’ said Pamela Bush, a local transportation advocate who attended the community meetings. “I think they were resolved to say no, regardless of what the state came up with.’’

Transportation officials said they made a valiant effort to sway the community, but facing continued resistance, ultimately decided in July not to use that pool of money to fund the Mattapan part of the project.

The state then scrambled to apply for $147 million under the grant program, putting itself in a pool of 1,400 communities nationwide competing for a piece of the stimulus funds. But that made many neighborhood leaders angrier, because the state proceeded with the same plan that they had been railing against for several weeks.

“The planners came to the community with a preconceived idea of a busway,’’ said state Representative Byron Rushing, “and they didn’t want to change.’’

State lawmakers who represent the affected communities ultimately told the state to either revise the grant application to reflect the community’s desire for safe, reliable bus service or withdraw it altogether.

When the federal government told the state that revisions were not allowed, the state withdrew the application.

“In the end, the [state] did not succeed in making the case . . . that the benefits would be enough to outweigh the detriments to the neighborhoods,’’ said state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz.

Mullan said that, to be fair, it was never guaranteed that the state would get the federal grant, though he regrets that the communities were not fully on board.

Going forward, he said, he aims to mend fences.

“I hope we haven’t blown it,’’ he said. “My real task is to keep the civic engagement, because what we have is the [heaviest] transit ridership in these neighborhoods.’’

For some riders and local residents, however, the breakdown of the process is difficult to swallow.

“This is just terrible,’’ said Grove Hall business owner Tashawn King. “You’re talking about a whole lot of jobs coming here, especially in this economy.’’

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at


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