Traffic chaos, safety seen as issues for Blue Hill Ave. fixes

A Route 28 bus makes it way down Blue Hill Avenue near Morton Street. File photo

In the month since the city sent out a survey asking for input into the revitalization of Blue Hill Avenue, more than 200 people have offered feedback. From preliminary findings, a hefty majority of respondents find the roadway to be dangerous and afflicted by chaotic traffic, with most saying they primarily wished for a stretch of road that they could describe as “clean.”

The survey is part of the first phase in a planning project to redesign a roughly three-mile run along the avenue, from near Mattapan Square to Grove Hall. Planners are focusing on transportation access, public space, and safety.

“This is definitely a combined effort to get this right,” said Chris Osgood, the city’s chief of streets. “It’s a high priority for the mayor. This corridor anchors our neighborhoods. It is the front door for multiple Main Street districts. Getting this right is really good, and important for the mayor.”

Osgood spoke to group of elected officials, advocates, planners, and transit officials gathered on Tuesday afternoon in City Hall for an ad hoc meeting on the Blue Hill Avenue plan, including preliminary results from the survey.

City Council President Andrea Campbell, who brought the group together, said she hoped it would be the first of several meetings to get discussions on the critical corridor out of organizational “silos.”

“We often have a lot of conversations,” Campbell said, “but they tend to be within city departments when we’re talking improvements through the city, with advocates when we’re talking about advocacy. But we thought Blue Hill Ave. is so important, so essential, not only to people going up and down the corridor to get to wherever they’re going, but also for economic purposes and for economic mobility purposes.”

The assembled group included state Reps. Dan Cullinane and Russell Holmes, whose districts split Mattapan, along with representatives from the Livable Streets group, the Boston Planning and Development Agency, MassDOT, and the Boston Transportation Department (BTD).

“We want to ask the community what they want before we message what should happen on Blue Hill Ave,” said Vineet Gupta, director of planning for BTD. “But at the same time, we want to make sure that, while we have a process that is from the ground up, that we in the city are doing things now.”

Lindiwe Rennert of the BTD reviewed preliminary survey takeaways and general plans for avenue outreach. Almost 70 percent of respondents have been in, or know someone who has been in, a crash on Blue Hill Avenue. Pulling from a survey that polled pedestrians, drivers, bicyclists, and bus riders, only 17 percent said they felt safe on the road.

The survey will remain open, available online, with plans to discuss the results at a Sept. 25 meeting.

Campbell hopes to reassemble the cross-department group after that meeting, but before that she wants to focus on helping local organizations push out the survey and any prior corridor studies that might be helpful.

“What we can do and what we probably will do in coming weeks is to assist in spreading information,” said Fatima Ali-Salaam of the Greater Mattapan Neighborhood Council earlier Tuesday, “to come up with a mechanism to help move information along, because they need it, just like we pass along information for other things.”

Also set to be discussed in the September meeting, Rennert said, are ongoing related projects like the $300,000 of near-term action items including improvements to signals that began in early July, planning for the Warren Street Bus-Priority Corridor, and three possible designs to improve the safety around Mattapan Square.

Rep. Holmes pointedly raised prior surveying efforts from a decade ago.

“My first hope is that we don’t go and take a survey and recreate the wheel,” he said. One of his earliest pushes was advocating for a dedicated bus lane on Blue Hill Avenue, which he took up again at the meeting. A bike lane is not his priority, he made clear, if it comes at the expense of bus riders and drivers who make up the majority of commuters on the route.

A major question in the room was whether the various departments were putting funding behind the planning. Holmes asked that there be “money attached to whatever we come up with. The community’s going to want to see something… make sure folks are seeing if they give us input, they’re going to start to see impacts.”

Osgood noted the city budget to advance the plan and hire outreach staff. Wes Edwards, the MBTA’s assistant general manager of service development, added that its Fiscal Management and Control Board dedicated $9 million through its Capital Investment Plan process, which was approved, to areas that have “high ridership, high delay” transit patterns.

“One that floated right to the top was Blue Hill Ave.,” Edwards said, as did Warren Street. With the avenue one of the identified zones, he said, “the MBTA is ready to make investments in the corridor — bring money to the table.”

The state has made some serious investments in the Mattapan area, both representatives reminded the group, including an $18 million Neponset River Greenway Extension, a new Blue Hill Avenue station on the commuter rail, and $50 million committed in the current Capital Investment Plan to the Mattapan Trolley with around than $200 million promised to that topic over the coming years.

But “there is still work to do,” Cullinane said, pushing for Charlie Card acceptance on the Fairmount Line. He also emphasized that “Blue Hill Avenue is a parking lot from 2-8. You need to arrive at some answers and solutions on how you can alleviate that,” he told transit officials.

A Livable Streets advocate said she wanted a plan from the city on buses, and to what extent they are pursuing bus rapid transit or bus-priority.

Aside from the September meeting, a separate session is planned for Aug. 21 to teach residents about the full suite of bus options that the MBTA and city are considering – the first of two bus-priority “learn-a-thon” events.

“The roads are so congested that the only thing we can guarantee now is if we start our buses on time, they are just going to get stuck in traffic,” Edwards said.