Editorial: Milton, our shared trolley line counts as rapid transit


The Mattapan trolley is once again in the center of a dispute, but this time it’s less about the World War II-vintage rolling stock’s past or future and more about the line’s current-day presence in Milton, the town that shares about half of its 2.6 miles of track with Boston.

Neighbors in Milton are fairly well split on the subject, but a majority voted two weeks ago to reject a town-devised zoning plan that would bring Milton into compliance with state law that requires more multi-family housing to be built “by right” within a certain radius— in this instance one-half-mile— of “rapid transit stations.”

In Milton’s case, the four stations in question are on the Mattapan Hi-Speed Trolley line: Milton (just over the river in Lower Mills), Central Avenue, Valley Road, and Capen Street. For decades, these stations have been broadly regarded by the riding public, the MBTA, and the lawmakers who fund it to be an extension of the Red Line. Some in Milton would prefer that such history be ignored, and a few would like to rid the town of the line altogether. This drawbridge mentality is both silly and sad.

The Feb. 14 vote – 54-46 – came despite repeated admonitions from Gov. Healey, Attorney General Andrea Campbell, and others that Milton – like dozens of other cities and towns – cannot simply “opt out” of the MBTA Communities Act. With its residents having rejected the town’s own “Action Plan,” Milton is currently without an alternative, leaving it in violation of state law.

This week, Campbell filed a 32-page lawsuit against the town’s administrators that could allow her to “secure the Town’s compliance” through injunctive relief or the appointment of a “special master” to create a new set of by-laws governing construction in the town.

Opponents in Milton have already indicated that they intend to make an appeal based on an ill-advised opinion among some in the town that the Mattapan trolley should not be considered rapid transit, thereby exempting Milton from a more expansive new housing program.

But, as Campbell made very clear in her lawsuit on Tuesday, Milton town leaders already tried to make that case before state guidelines for the law’s implementation were finalized. They challenged the MBTA and other state agencies to re-categorize Milton as something less than a “rapid transit” community and, according to the AG’s brief, the Town’s Planning Board “even discussed ‘[c’easing] trolley service through Milton as a means for avoiding the required zoning.”

All of these arguments were heard, considered, and rejected. And for good reason. The Mattapan-Milton-Ashmont trolley line operates on a fixed track, on a designated right-of-way, and “uses a fixed catenary system,” all of the requisite characteristics of “rapid transit” as defined by federal law. And, despite the wishful thinking of Milton opponents, that will only become more solidified in the coming years as the MBTA moves forward with its well-publicized plan to replace the existing PCC cars with Type 9 light rail vehicles that are more akin to the Green Line’s vehicles. T officials estimate that the Type 9 LRV cars will double the capacity for ridership on the line.

Milton had ample time to formulate its own pro-active plan to comply with a state law that seeks to level the playing field and share the burden of the state’s housing crisis. Quite appropriately, the state gave the town’s officers and their constituents plenty of authority to devise a plan that worked best for their own community while also complying with state law. Pretending that the trolley line doesn’t exist does not count as an alternative. It’s time for state leaders to follow through on their promised enforcement.

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