New MBTA Crosstown Bus Line Proposal Brings Out Critics, Supporters To Public Meeting

Photo: Waverley Street

Last week’s public meeting which unveiled the MBTA’s revamped bus system gave Belmont residents a first look to proposed changes to the bus routes as well as a new line traveling through town.

Andrew McFarland and Olivia Mobayed from the MBTA came before the town’s Transportation Advisory Committee – the host for the July 7 virtual public meeting – to present the Belmont portion of the T’s Better Bus Project, the authority’s system-wide overhaul of bus service including current routes such as the popular 73 from Waverley to Harvard Square and the 75 from Harvard to Belmont Center. It was also a first look at the proposed 54 line, a new crosstown bus in which riders can travel into Arlington or head south through Watertown and Newton.

This plan is to ”rethink routes,” ”renovate and overhaul bus service” so that the public will find it ”simpler and easier to use,” said McFarland. For the MBTA, the meeting was an opportunity to present the draft to the community and receive feedback, he said.

See an earlier report on the changes to the Belmont-related routes here.

The big news was the first public revealing of the draft of the new 54 route, in which Waverley Street would join Lexington, Common, Leonard and Pleasant streets to create the Belmont portion of the new line from Arlington Center to the MBTA Green Line Riverside terminal in Newton. The 54 would replace the 554 – a six-day a week route that has infrequent times – that terminates at Waverley Square on Trapelo Road across from the Belmont Car Wash.

McFarland said the new 54 would allow for a “crosstown connection” where riders can travel directly to a desired location such as Arlington Center rather than take a bus into a “hub” such as Harvard Square to take a second bus to the destination.

The existing routes running through Belmont would see seven-day-a-week timetables with more frequent bus service as well as earlier start times and late night buses. The new plan calls of a return of buses traveling under the commuter rail bridge after two years when the introduction of new buses required routes to stay on the southside of the commuter rail line. Mobayed said the reason the routes would transit into Belmont Center is due to public sentiment. “They’d like it back” in the business district for convenience and safety, she said.

Olivia Mobayed from the MBTA’s Better Bus Project

The new routes entering Belmont Center via the commuter rail tunnel has been identified as a potential trouble point due to the size of the tunnel. Glenn Clancy, Belmont’s director of the Office of Community Development, said one of his concerns was if the two lanes currently under the bridge is reduced to one to squeeze the bus through the tunnel could result in major backups during the 90-minute rush hour.

Yet a test run along the route in which Mobayed took with MBTA bus instructors and training staff ”got there just fine.” McFarland said, at this time, “all stakeholders are working together to get under the bridge.”

“So, there are some challenges – including the “tight” corner at Common and Waverley – “to make the trip safe but it is feasible,” said McFarland.

When the meeting was open to public comments, critics of the new 54 route were quick to point out a list of issues using Waverley Street, eager to point out a litany of limitations and problems from traffic bottlenecks, impassable sections, afternoon and weekend parking along Town Field, blind driveways, crowds of children close to the road, unshoveled sidewalks, as well as an onerous steep incline at Edward Street that one resident called ”dangerous.”

“I am a proponent of public transportation,” said Debbie Dobbins of Waverley Street, ”but I see a serious degrading of the quality of life.”

What many opponents viewed as a compromise alternative route was for the bus to travel the length of Pleasant Street from Waverley Square to the Arlington line at Route 2, which would have the added benefit of skirting the commuter rail tunnel. But Mobayed said that proposal would severely limit the number of people and neighborhoods that would benefit from a new bus line including the town’s distressed business center and Belmont’s veteran’s public housing location.

For those who said they welcome a bus route close to residents and the business community, the challenges of a Waverley Street as well as getting three bus routes under the Belmont Commuter Rail tunnel shouldn’t be any more difficult than what the T has done for decades in urban communities such as Malden and Somerville where narrow streets and bridges are a norm.

Proponents of the new route were eager to have the route approved. Belmont High student Sophia Jensen told the meeting the route would be “extremely beneficial” for students who depend on parents to drive them and allows for much needed independence.

Brooklyn native Ade Baptista said he had ”heard a lot of concerns about safety” on Waverley Street, an issue that he believes doesn’t acknowledge that the MBTA employees are “professional drivers,” something he has seen using the system.

”This will be a boom for the town” as cars will be taken from street and a great number of people will use the bus to travel into Belmont Center. ”People will support that.”

While the pros and cons made their points, McFarland said before the proposal can move forward, it still will need to clear the T’s own safety committee which is somewhat down the road.

”This is a draft plan, just that,” said McFarland.

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