State Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack told the Back Bay Association on Tuesday morning that the state Department of Transportation (MassDOT) sees air rights projects and development on top of existing T stations as the future of transit oriented development.
Using the South End Gateway project on top of the Back Bay Station as an example, she told the crowd at the Association’s breakfast meeting that MassDOT wants to work with developers on their visions.
“We talk a lot about TOD,” she said. “The way real estate worked for a long time at MassDOT and the T is it was a thing we did on surplus land. We don’t need the land anymore for a road or the T, so we took the piece of land and put it on the marketplace and got rid of it. That is not the kind of development that the development community is looking to do in the year 2018. What they actually want to do is sit right on top of the transit system, which means air rights development. That means joint development on the same parcel where we are actively running trains or actively running buses.”
Pollack appeared at the Association to talk about the future of transit in the Back Bay, and was wonderfully introduced by Association Director Meg Mainzer-Cohen.
As she discussed the idea of development in cooperation with the T, she said they have an initiative to be more flexible in working with developers as part of Gov. Charlie Baker’s Housing Choice plan.
“We are open for business, as the governor calls the initiative, which means if there is a parcel we are already using for transportation purposes, we are trying to be flexible and work with the development community and the municipalities,” she said. “Are we perfect at it? No, we are not…Are we getting better? I think the answer is yes. As you know we are working hard right now on the South End Gateway project, which is the air rights project over Back Bay Station as well as 1000 Boylston, which is an air rights project over the Mass Turnpike…The reason is because at the end of the day what we do in the transportation departments…is not the important thing. Transportation is not about roads and bridges and signals and tracks…What it’s about is people and prosperity.”
While there are no specific plans or ideas, such a mindset would open up development for a number of stations across the downtown neighborhoods, including such stations as Kenmore or Ruggles.
But beyond that new initiative, Pollack told the Association the major work being done at MassDOT and the T is fixing the core services such as the Orange Line.
She said Back Bay riders would begin to see a new fleet of Orange Line cars in 2019. The existing cars, she said, were supposed to have a mid-life tune up in the 1980s, but they never did. Now, they are experiencing many problems as their useful life wraps up.
Already, the T has put a plan together to replace the fleet with 150 new cars to be assembled in Springfield. They will be assembled six at a time, and Pollack said the first shells are on their way now.
“The first set of shells from which real Orange Line cars will be built are on a boat from China as we speak headed towards the Springfield factory,” she said. “The good news is our current fleet of Orange Line cars is 120 and on a good day 96 actually function. The new fleet will be 152 cars and what that means is the service schedule for the Orange Line in 2021 will be trains coming every four minutes instead of every six or seven minutes. That’s a 40 percent increase in capacity on the Orange Line.”
She said they will incrementally add the new cars and, by 2019, riders in the Back Bay should see a new fleet and much less time waiting on the platform.
For the Green Line, she said they are just now taking delivery of 40 new cars, the first new cars on the line in decades. The cars were meant to supply the Green Line Extension to Somerville, but that project went sideways and was delayed. However, the car contract still went out, and the new cars will be put on the line in the coming months.
On the Silver Line, Pollack said there is very good news in that they are replacing the fleet of bus rapid transit (BRT) vehicles.
Unfortunately, the custom fleet the T purchased when the Silver Line was introduced were made by a company that went bankrupt. That hampered their ability to get new vehicles. However, she said battery technology has come a long way and she believes that they may be able to get new BRTs now that are not custom made – which means they would be cheaper and easier to replace.
Finally, Pollack said the key to all of the changes at the T has been fixing the culture at the organization.
“Fixing the T really means fixing the institution of the T, which means the people, the culture, the management,” she said. “If we make the T the most effective transit agency in America, it can do whatever people want it to do. People can talk about what they want the transit system to look like today, this year and in the next decade. But if the underlying agency can’t deliver, it really doesn’t matter what our hopes and dreams are. So, fixing the T is fixing the agency, and then also fixing the infrastructure.”
The breakfast meeting ended with a question and answer period.