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A "STEP" Towards Improved Transportation in Somerville

By Pamela Sosnowski

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Somerville is one of Massachusetts' fastest growing cities, adding nearly 3,000 residents between 2010 and 2013. With this increase in population comes a higher demand for safe, efficient, and convenient public transportation. That's one of the reasons why the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership?or STEP?was formed.

"STEP sprang spontaneously from a small series of meetings, convened by MAPC more than 10 years ago in Somerville, about transportation," says Wig Zamore, the group's community researcher. "Somerville is the most overrun community in Massachusetts by regional highway and diesel commuter rail but had only the Red Line in Davis Square and no other local, clean (electric) subway or light rail connections, until the new Orange Line Station opened in Assembly."

STEP's mission is to secure transportation for the city that will increase social equity, environmental health, and economic growth, according to the organization's website. It was founded by concerned citizens with experience in grassroots activism.

According to Zamore, these residents were already meeting to discuss the future of the Assembly Square neighborhood, which remained underutilized when the old Ford automobile plant closed in the late 1950s. The neighborhood now houses Assembly Row -- a mixed used retail and business park that features retail stores, restaurants, residential space, office space, and more that opened in 2012.

STEP's priorities are ensuring the Green Line subway extension into the city is built effectively, building an Assembly Square stop, extending community pedestrian and bicycle paths, and raising awareness of the health problems that can sometimes arise from public transportation.

The Green Line extension, in particular, has been a sore spot for Somerville's residents; an estimated $1B construction project that the state keeps "dragging its feet" on, according to Zamore.

"The state had spent an enormous amount of money on the Big Dig ($21 billion) and on new diesel suburban commuter rail and on commuter parking lots before tackling the Green Line Extension," he explains. "Yet the Green Line was all along the single biggest environmentally beneficial project on the state clean air 'to do' list." The good news is as of October 2016, the T is in the process of hiring officials to manage the extension project, and funding is closer to being secured. New stations along the line were supposed to be opened between 2016 and 2018.

In the meantime, STEP is focusing its efforts on other transportation improvement projects. One of these is SomerVision, a plan by city staff and the community to add 6,000 new housing units, 30,000 jobs, and 125 new acres of green public open space. At least half of the jobs are to be accessible via walking, biking, and other "clean" forms of transportation.

Says Zamore, "Somerville is incredibly diverse, with over 50 languages spoken in its public schools, and its adult population has very high educational attainment, a change from the past. To serve this population in an environmentally and quality of life friendly manner, without clogging our streets further with cars and trucks, Somerville's citizens and the comprehensive plan 'SomerVision' have embraced improved clean transit, walking and bicycling."

Zamore and STEP are excited about the SomerVision and the city's future plans. "If we can do this and stay average income, with deep commitment to local equity issues, we will be one of the best local examples of a truly sustainable and livable 21st century community," he says. "Those are worthwhile goals.

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