Commonwealth Magazine by Bruce Mohl

Agency to explore bus lanes, but fare reductions not considered

STATE TRANSPORTATION OFFICIALS said on Monday they would explore ways to address delays on the MBTA’s third-busiest bus route, but they refused to even consider what many residents of Chelsea say they want – fare reductions.

What to do about the Route 111 bus that carries more than 12,000 passengers a day came to a head a week ago when Brian Lang, a director of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, demanded to know what the T was doing to address chronic delays that are likely to worsen as construction accelerates on bridges used by the bus. Lang said he was worried that the problems with Route 111 were not getting the agency’s attention because most of the riders are poor, working-class immigrants.

At Monday’s meeting of the control board, a number of Chelsea residents showed up to complain about the service and the refusal of T officials to listen to their concerns. The residents, most of them from an organization called GreenRoots, said the 111 buses are regularly overcrowded and often delayed. They acknowledged fare mitigation wouldn’t solve those problems, but they said lower fares would at least be an acknowledgment that Chelsea residents shouldn’t be treated like cattle.

“Why are we paying the exact same fares for the worst service in the state?” asked Roseann Bongiovanni, executive director of GreenRoots.

The T unveiled what it called the Chelsea Plan in May to improve service on the 111 bus route and divert as many of its passengers as possible to alternative modes of transportation, including commuter rail, the Chelsea Silver Line service to South Station via the Seaport District, and buses linking to the Blue Line. The Chelsea Plan estimated travel times on the 111 route would be up to 45 minutes longer during the peak bridge construction period in July 2019 and 20 minutes longer at other times.

The 111 bus runs from Everett through Revere and into Chelsea, where it picks up most of its passengers. It continues over the Tobin Bridge into Charlestown and then into Haymarket in Boston via the North Washington Street Bridge. The Tobin Bridge is currently undergoing repairs and the North Washington Street Bridge is slated to be rebuilt over a five-year period. The 111 bus often runs late because of traffic congestion along the route. Its performance has also suffered in the past because the T frequently diverted 111 buses and drivers to plug holes in the schedule of other, less frequent routes.

T General Manager Luis Ramirez said he and other transit officials have been meeting with Chelsea officials to resolve the problems. “We are working hard to deliver a better service,” he said.

Jeffrey Gonneville, the deputy general manager, acknowledged the route has suffered from overcrowding and cancelled trips, but he said a number of operational changes and the addition of five bus drivers to the route have led to improvements. He said there were 280 canceled trips on the 111 route last year during the week of Labor Day; this year there were 26, he said.

Lang adopted a milder tone on Monday than he did a week ago, saying there is no “silver bullet” to address the problems with the 111 route. He urged the T and the control board to take the lead in forming a task force of all interested parties to address delays on the 111 bus and improve alternative ways of getting back and forth between Boston and Chelsea.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said her office would explore ways to ease the impact of the North Washington Street Bridge reconstruction and work with the Coast Guard to reduce delays caused by the raising and lowering of the Chelsea Street Bridge, which affects travel times on the Chelsea Silver Line and other buses connecting to the Blue Line.

Chris Dempsey, the director of Transportation for Massachusetts, urged the state Department of Transportation to address concerns about the 111 bus by testing a dedicated bus lane on the Tobin Bridge or imposing higher tolls at peak periods to reduce congestion.

Pollack said her agency would explore options with the Tobin Bridge, but she sounded skeptical that a dedicated bus lane would make much difference unless it was matched with a similar lane along the rest of the route. T officials said they would reach out to Chelsea officials to explore their receptivity.

T officials said they would form a task force, begin exploring possible service improvements, and report back to the control board in 60 days.

Asked her reaction, Bongiovanni of GreenRoots said: “Complete bullshit.”

That was her general reaction, but she was particularly incensed that Ramirez said he had been meeting with Chelsea officials. She said he had reached out to City Council President Damali Vidot on Monday morning.