Delayed improvements to Mattapan Trolley weigh heavy on Milton after lawsuit

by Chris Van Buskirk, The Boston Herald

A series of long-promised improvements to the Mattapan Trolley are weighing heavy on local officials in Milton after Attorney General Andrea Campbell targeted the town with a lawsuit for defying a transit-oriented housing law.
The looming shadow of a legal battle between the town and the state has drummed up hard feelings over what has been promised as a revitalization of an MBTA line largely serving low income communities. But years after the project was first started, and months after an updated timeline, the MBTA is still working to deliver on the goals.
Milton has a “particularly powerful voice, for good or for bad,” given the scrutiny it faces over its non-compliance with the MBTA Communities Act, said Ben Zoll, a member of the town’s select board.
If the state is going to crack down on the town for acting like a scofflaw, Zoll said, then it should also be held accountable for delaying improvements to the nearly 80-year-old Mattapan Trolley Line, which runs through Milton, Mattapan, and Dorchester and serves about 3,800 riders during the week.
“I think we should be using (our voice), not to blame the state for trying to fix the housing crisis, which they should be doing, but to ask where their work is on fixing the transportation crisis. If we’re putting zoning around transportation, we need that same investment into that infrastructure,” Zoll said.
Campbell filed a lawsuit against the town this week for failing to comply with a housing law that requires about 177 cities and towns to zone one district within a half mile of a transit station for multi-family housing, which for Milton is the Mattapan Trolley.

The challenge drastically escalated what had already been a raucous local debate and for some in Milton, like Zoll, put squarely in the spotlight efforts to renovate the Mattapan Trolley.
The MBTA committed $127 million to refurbish eight of nine trolley cars to extend their lives by about a decade, renovate all the stations on the line, and eventually, bring newer train cars to the Mattapan Trolley.

The MBTA committed to refurbishing eight of the nine Mattapan Trolley cars. Four are needed to keep up with service demands, according to the MBTA.

Like so many things at the oldest transit system in the United States, the Mattapan Trolley project has hit delays — not the least of which was the COVID-19 pandemic — and local officials are accusing the MBTA of radio silence over the past few months.
The refurbished cars were originally supposed to be delivered by August 2019, according to two state lawmakers who represent residents in the area.
A Spring 2019 presentation on the project drafted by the MBTA pushed the delivery date back to 2020. But years later, only two renovated trolleys have been delivered — one in March 2022 and another in December 2022, according to the agency.
Rep. Bill Driscoll, a Milton Democrat, said the agency did a “reset” with local officials about a year and a half ago where a new timeline was offered. Driscoll said the third car was scheduled to arrive this winter, at the earliest in December 2023 and the latest in February.
“Like anything, some things can be chalked up to ‘we just went through a pandemic’ and there were, obviously, challenges in workforce and what’s safe to do or not. But there’s actually no record of work being done the full year before the pandemic began on these trolleys. So obviously, they’re behind the original schedule,” Driscoll said.
The third trolley is three-quarters of the way through refurbishment, the fourth is 15% done, and the fifth is 10% complete, said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. That update comes as the MBTA’s own project website tells visitors the third trolley car “is currently being refurbished with an expected return to service date as soon as fall 2023.”
Design work on the line’s infrastructure is 15% complete and cost estimates for renovations to stations are “ongoing,” Pesaturo said. MBTA crews have replaced 4,000 feet of rail and 1,380 ties, which eliminated 22 speed restrictions, he said.
“The MBTA is strongly committed to improving service and safety on the Mattapan Line, as it is a vital transit service for the community,” Pesautro said. “These infrastructure improvements, combined with the trolley overhauls, will allow the T to maintain consistently reliable service while we advance the work of modernizing the line and increasing capacity and frequency. It’s progress, but only a start.”

Communication from the MBTA has been lackluster, lawmakers said, and once-quarterly meetings on the project have since stopped. The last meeting between the transit agency and local elected officials was in October 2023, according to Driscoll and Sen. Walter Timilty, a Milton Democrat.

Attorney General Andrea Campbell sued the Town of Milton after it did not comply with a transit-oriented housing law. Timilty slammed the MBTA over the project, which he called “an unmitigated disaster for several years,” and cast doubt on the agency’s ability to deliver refurbished trolley cars in a “timely fashion.”

“We have revised projections now where we were supposed to receive one trolley car refurbished, an additional one, a month ago at the latest. That hasn’t happened. And you are hearing the various percentages of other cars in the restoration project. Do you believe any of that? That it will actually come to fruition in a timely fashion? I don’t,” he said.

Timilty said he is so fed up with the MBTA that he plans to call for a legislative oversight hearing on the Mattapan Trolley project. He said the dispute in Milton over the housing law has put the issue center stage, and an oversight hearing will give lawmakers the chance to grill agency officials.

“We’ve been classified as a rapid transit community, which to me is patently unfair. A trolley line that’s six to seven years behind in a restoration project, with a demolished staircase in some parts, is not rapid transit,” he said. “That has brought a lot of focus and frustration on the MBTA because of that classification.”

MBTA Advisory Board Executive Director Brian Kane, who previously worked at the MBTA and was involved in the Mattapan Trolley refurbishment project in 2018, said the agency “doesn’t enjoy running 80-year-old trains.”
“I think it’s fair to say that the T has wanted to upgrade that line for a long time. But the preservationists have thwarted those efforts,” he said. “These things have been rebuilt so many times to keep the preservationists happy. At a certain point, I think it’s fair to say that the T would prefer to not run these vintage trains if there was public support to do so.”
Still, the delays to the project have left sour feelings in Milton.
Zoll, the Milton Select Board member, argued that the town should be allowed to have more time to figure out the housing law if the MBTA can take its time with overhauling the Mattapan Trolley Line.
“If the state gets 10 years to get the Mattapan Line right, why don’t we get 10 years to get zoning right?” he said.

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