As we approach the Special Town Meeting that will address aligning our zoning bylaw with the requirements of the MBTA Communities Act, there have been many thoughtful and sometimes heated arguments about how we should comply with this new state law. While the discussion of zoning changes before Town Meeting is a vital component of how we govern ourselves, we need to broaden our focus. We are spending too much energy and angst on a series of zoning changes that will have a relatively small impact on Arlington, while ignoring the key ingredient in the entire discussion: the MBTA.
First, let’s understand why the zoning changes before Town Meeting are not as dramatic as they sound. Zoning is a restriction on how a property owner can develop and use their real estate. In the last century, when farmers were selling off their land in Arlington, a combination of zoning and market forces dictated what would sprout from vacant land had a major impact on our town. Today, we are looking at rezoning land that has already been developed, so change will only come when a property owner pursues the benefits of demolishing or renovating existing structures.
Zoning changes build capacity for additional housing, but redevelopment is glacial. The deterioration of MBTA service has been much more rapid. Transit Matters tracks the post-pandemic restoration of MBTA service, and it paints a bleak picture in Arlington. Massachusetts Avenue is the major transit corridor in town, and there has been a dramatic loss of service on the avenue. As of August 9, the MBTA is running only 57% of the 164 weekday Route 77 trips that were run at the beginning of February 2020, while the Route 79 bus from Alewife to Arlington Heights has been eliminated.
The new Green Line Extension (GLX) opened last December. MBTA Route 80 originates in Arlington Center and passes by the new Tufts-Medford GLX terminus about ten minutes later. Instead of increasing service to provide a connection to the new train, the MBTA celebrated the GLX opening by reducing the number of weekday Route 80 bus trips from 36 weekday trips to 27.
It’s time for us to move the discussion from amending our zoning bylaw to advocating for the transit we need. We cannot afford to be passive or polite in our advocacy, we need to boldly advocate for the public policy decisions required to live in a vibrant community that isn’t choked with parking and traffic problems.
We need to be persistent, visible advocates for a series of short- and long-term goals for transit in Arlington. We need to make sure that state and federal leaders, capable of supporting Arlington’s transit needs, are in regular communication with us and are addressing Arlington’s transit needs.
Let’s begin the conversation with the Red Line. There are 45-year-old plans and Environmental Impact Statements sitting in state and federal files for a Red Line extension through Arlington. The plans drew intense and organized opposition, and former State Representative Jack Cusack pushed through a 1976 state law that prohibited the construction of a mass transit facility within 75 yards of Arlington Catholic High School. This was followed by a complicated collection of non-binding ballot questions in 1977 where voters said no to everything on the ballot. The option Arlington voters disliked the most, with 9,841 NO votes, was “ending the Red Line/rapid transit at Alewife Brook Parkway with a permanent terminus at that point.” Which is exactly what we got.
The official reaction was predictable. Faced with intense opposition from a state representative and a large number of Arlington residents, they threw up their hands and said, “forget about it.” The resulting narrative was that Arlington stopped the Red Line and Arlington is opposed to transit. For the past 46 years, transit advocates and policy leaders have embraced the narrative and avoided any meaningful interaction with our town.
Arlington Town Meeting took the first steps toward changing our narrative last spring. Town Meeting voted 169-41-1 to seek repeal of the 1976 state law that prohibits the construction of a mass transit facility within 75 yards of Arlington Catholic High School. State Representatives Sean Garballey and Dave Rogers, and State Senator Cindy Friedman, have sponsored repeal legislation (HD 4477) at the request of the Town of Arlington, and it is currently before the Transportation Committee. In addition, Representative Garballey sponsored legislation (H 3319) “to establish a special commission to study the financial feasibility and department capability of extending the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Red Line to the town of Arlington.”
If we dust off the 1977 Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Red Line Extension – Harvard Square to Arlington Heights (Volume 1) (Volume 2) (Volume 3) we can see how engineers designed a subway to meet the challenges presented at that time. One of the significant challenges in 1977, that we don’t face today, was the need to maintain freight rail service along the Lexington Branch rail line through Arlington (now the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway). The last freight train ran along the line in 1981, and the line was railbanked in 1992.
The intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Mystic Street was redesigned after the Lexington Branch tracks were removed, so the 1977 design of the Red Line station in Arlington Center would need to be reconfigured to align to current conditions. The 1977 plans called for a plaza underneath the Pleasant Street-Mystic Street-Massachusetts Avenue intersection, so pedestrians could enter at grade level from Mystic Street and emerge from an escalator or stairway in the triangle in front of Kickstand Café. The underground station, one level below the plaza, would have extend east from Swan Place. A new design could incorporate a Minuteman Bikeway underpass, an underground bicycle parking facility, as well as the pedestrian plaza.
Arlington’s 2023 Annual Town Meeting also overwhelmingly passed a resolution seeking “a partnership with the MBTA to plan significant improvements to the transit infrastructure in Arlington,” with a copy sent to the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, Senator Friedman, Representatives Garballey and Rogers, the MBTA Board of Directors, the MBTA General Manager, and the Secretary of Transportation. In addition to the long-range goal of significant infrastructure improvements, the resolution also requested short-term improvements. Specifically, Town Meeting asked for “frequent, reliable service along Massachusetts Avenue with convenient connections to the Red Line.” The resolution also requested that the MBTA provide “frequent, reliable service from Arlington Heights, through Arlington Center, and along Medford Street and Boston Avenue with convenient connections to the West Medford commuter rail station and the Tufts-Medford terminus of the Green Line Extension.”
Resolutions and legislation are important first steps as we advocate for quality MBTA service that meets the needs of our town. However, we can’t stop there. We must work together to generate a constant stream of advocacy that moves Arlington up from the bottom of the region’s transit priorities. This advocacy must also include our federal delegation, particularly Representative Katherine Clark, who will become House Majority Leader if the Democrats regain the U.S. House of Representatives.
Successful advocacy will require a mix of passion and thoughtful arguments, the kind of discourse we regularly see in Town Meeting and in many community forums. We’ve had a really good conversation about the MBTA Communities Act. Let us now turn our attention to Arlington’s relationship with the MBTA.