Brookline transportation officials to consider bus lane proposal

Abby Patkin
| Wicked Local

If you commute into Boston by way of Brookline, there’s a good chance you’ve passed through (and perhaps been stuck in rush hour traffic at) Gateway East, the area near Route 9 on the town’s border. 

By town estimates, about 40,000 vehicles pass through the eastern end of Boylston Street on a normal day, with roughly 10,000 bus riders passing through on the 66, the MBTA’s second-busiest bus line.

Brookline is nearly in the home stretch of Gateway East construction, a long-term project to improve transportation in the Brookline Village area. Now, transportation officials want to take those improvements one step further, a process that could result in Brookline’s first dedicated bus lanes.

The proposed lanes would be located on Washington Street within the Gateway East limits, roughly between Station Street and the Boston border, according to Transportation Administrator Todd Kirrane.

Revamping the area

Back when Brookline had streetcars, the stretch of road now called Gateway East was  known as Brookline Village Square.

“This part of Brookline used to feel much more like a connected part of Brookline Village, and a place where there were small businesses, and shops, and a major transit stop that took people out to Chestnut Hill or over to Harvard Square,” said  Transportation Board Chair Chris Dempsey. 

“And what happened is over time, we really turned it into more of a highway,” he continued. “I think what we’re trying to do with this discussion about dedicated bus lanes is see if we can find ways to turn it back more into what feels like a local road or a community road, rather than a highway that kind of cuts off one part of Brookline from another.”

Between the study, design and construction phases, the Gateway East project has been in the works about a decade, with infrastructure improvements made to benefit pedestrians, cyclists and public transit users, and to boost the neighborhood’s livability. 

In the  early stages, the town wasn’t able to make as many improvements for transit users as it would have liked, according to Dempsey; bus lanes weren’t widely-used at the time, he said. 

In the years since  “there has been something of a renaissance or a recognition that dedicated bus lanes can dramatically improve the experience for bus riders,” he said. “And you now have communities all throughout Greater Boston that have implemented or are in the process of implementing bus lanes.”

In fact, with communities like Boston, Watertown, Cambridge and Arlington already using bus lanes, “Brookline really kind of sticks out like a sore thumb as a community that doesn’t have any,” Dempsey said. “And I think it’s especially egregious when we are home to the second-busiest bus line in the entire system.”

What does this mean for Gateway East construction?

Gateway East construction is slated to finish in late spring or early summer 2021, leaving transportation officials time to consider installing bus lanes without adding time to the project or driving up costs, according to Dempsey. 

“One of the great things about bus lanes is that they don’t require significant construction,” he said. “More or less, they are just applying some paint to the roadway.”

While dedicated bus lanes carry numerous benefits for transit users, there are some trade-offs.

There’s only so much space, so the addition of a dedicated bus lane typically means reducing the number of general purpose travel lanes, Dempsey explained. 

“That’s the conversation that we need to have as the Transportation Board and with input from the community,” he said. “What are the trade-offs that we want to make to try to have everybody move through this section of road more efficiently, and maybe more equitably too, given the demographics of bus ridership and our desire to make sure that we’re providing the best transit service we can in Brookline?”

What’s next?

The Transportation Board will dig into those details at a public information meeting Dec. 1, then later at a board meeting on Dec. 7. Both meetings will feature presentations and information from the MBTA and VHB, the civil engineering and design firm involved in assessing, studying and designing Gateway East. 

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation Highway Division is also an important stakeholder, according to Dempsey. While Brookline owns the area of Gateway East, MassDOT controls some of the road, including part of Boylston Street. 

While considering this bus lane proposal, residents “should keep in mind that the MassDOT Highway Division has an interest in promoting regional traffic flow and is unlikely to approve any project that they think will be unnecessarily disruptive to traffic,” Dempsey said. 

Dempsey said he does not expect the Transportation Board to make a decision until its January meeting at the earliest, and there will be multiple opportunities for the community to weigh in. 

 “We want to hear from riders of the 66 bus … and how their lives could be improved with a faster and more reliable bus trip. And we also, of course, want to hear from folks who drive through Gateway East on a regular basis about the implications for them and for their trips and their commutes,”  he said.

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