December 7, 2006 – Vol. 42, No. 17
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Quest for a viable Silver Line alternative

Serghino René

John Kyper lives in Roxbury and is a member of the Washington Street Corridor Coalition. He says he doesn’t like the Silver Line for one simple reason — it’s inconvenient.

“I almost never use it,” he says. “It’s very slow and a bumpy ride.”

If he’s coming to Dudley from downtown Boston, he says he can take the Orange Line to Roxbury Crossing, walk to Dudley Square and beat the bus by ten minutes.

Kyper is just one of several Bostonians in the Lower Roxbury and South End district who view the Silver Line as an unreliable and unequal alternative to the former elevated Orange Line that once dominated Washington Street from Forest Hills through Dudley to downtown.

Several Lower Roxbury and South End residents, community organizations and users of the Silver Line buses recently met at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology to discuss a light rail system as a possible alternative to the proposed Silver Line extension.

Additional informational meetings are being planned for the next few months with neighborhood groups along the entire length of the replacement service corridor, which stretches from Chinatown to Mattapan, to raise public awareness about the light rail alternative.

During the meeting, Kyper showed photographs of various light rail systems across North America that he has taken over the last decade. He readily admits that the country has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go.

In the 1950s and ’60s, building highways was all the rage in the United States. In Massachusetts, an extension of I-95 was proposed to run through the South End, Roxbury, Jamaica Plain and part of the Fenway neighborhoods.

After years of protest from community residents, a political compromise was struck. Instead of building the highway, the federal government built a transportation system for Amtrak and the commuter rail. More importantly, the elevated Orange Line system was relocated to what is now known as the Southwest Corridor. MBTA stations at Northampton, Dudley and Egleston were eliminated.

“When the elevated Orange Line came down 20 years ago, our community was promised equivalent or better replacement service,” said Kathleen Emrich of the South End Neighborhood Association.

But that never happened. The Orange Line came down in 1987, and since then, there have been buses on the route it served from Dudley to downtown.

That remains the norm to this day.

What’s devastating to some is that communities of color were stripped of rapid transit services and replaced with buses. Many in the community believe that bus service is not an adequate replacement for a rapid transit line. The bus ride takes an average of 22 minutes as compared to eight minutes, and riders must then transfer into the central subway system.

Time has shown that transit systems across the city were and are steadily being improved, renovated or extended, except in communities of color.

In 2002, Terrell wrote an op-ed in the Dorchester Reporter with Penn Loh, executive director of the community organization Alternatives for Community & Environment, called “The Missing Spoke in the Hub’s Wheel.” On the back was a map of the city’s rapid transit system. The graphic clearly showed that all the train lines didn’t go through the black community, but around it.

“We have the only commercial districts in the city of Boston with no train service,” said Terrell. “If the T is serious and sincere about getting us to the airport, why did they cut off the CT3 bus that skirted through Roxbury and went to the airport? They cut that off two years ago. They aren’t interested in [communities of color].”

There’s another piece to the story, one to file under the heading “adding insult to injury.” When the Orange Line was moved in the late ’80s, Jamaica Plain kept its service. The South End kept its service, albeit moved a half-mile to the west. Downtown Boston kept its service. Charlestown got two new stops, despite moving a half-mile east.

In fact, every community along the Orange Line kept its service — except for Roxbury.

The MBTA is now ready to build an extension of the Green Line from Lechmere Station to Union Square in Somerville, an announcement that has led to renewed calls for the T to remedy the longstanding inequality.

“If they can build those projects, they can easily build this one,” said Terrell.

For years, the Washington Street Corridor Coalition has pushed for alternatives to the Silver Line, including a tunnel service, reservation space and an extension of Orange Line service from Dudley to downtown. Terrell says any of those alternatives would meet the criteria of the 1980 planning process.

“One seat, one ride service is what we want,” said Terrell. “It’s also our intention to propose that we extend light rail [service] from Dudley south along Warren Street and Blue Hill Avenue to Mattapan Square, because that was the original replacement service corridor that was proposed 30 years ago. That will provide a nine-mile stretch of service to downtown Boston.”

So far, the Corridor Coalition hasn’t found an instance in the United States where state government removed rapid transit, replaced it with a bus and residents accepted the bus service as an equivalent alternative.

“I feel like with all the proposals the MBTA has offered, I’m being hijacked,” said South End resident David Larson. “I wish they’d just get me into downtown Boston. I don’t care about going to the airport.”

Larson took the Silver Line when he lived in Union Park and, oftentimes, chose to take the Blue Line instead.

“From experience, it is a lot easier to take the Blue Line than it is to go through that horrible thing that happens at Silver Line Way,” Larson said. “Just get me into the Green Line, have the thing turn around at Government Center, and get me back again.”

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