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May 18, 2015

Urban commuters, traffic congestion drive need for public transit

PHOTO/EDD COTE Nisha Deo and co-workers commute between Boston and Marlborough on a bus provided by their employer, Boston Scientific.

As a Cambridge resident, Nisha Deo wasn't crazy about driving to work. But when she got a job outside Greater Boston, at Boston Scientific in Marlborough, she didn't have much choice. To get to work in MetroWest, she needed to navigate packed Eastern Massachusetts streets each day and then struggle to find a place to park.

“With traffic and everything it just really took forever,” she said. “It was difficult because your schedule was never really your own.”

Today, though, Deo doesn't worry about any of that. Each morning she hops on a shuttle-bus at the corner of Newbury Street and Massachusetts Avenue in Boston and rides in comfort to her office. There's free coffee and wi-fi, and she can get some work done or just sit back and watch a movie. And there's another added benefit. Some of the company's top executives ride the shuttle, which also has stops in Boston at North and South Station and Copley Square, so she has a chance to do some informal networking.

Commutes such as Deo's are becoming more common across the MetroWest-Interstate 495 region. As companies such as Boston Scientific work to attract the best talent from the Boston area and local planners look for ways to address traffic congestion, transit options that get away from dependence on personal vehicles are popping up all over.

Jessica Strunkin, deputy director of the regional economic development group 495/MetroWest Partnership, said business leaders from around the area are constantly talking about the need for better transportation options for their employees.

“In a lot of ways the success of the region has created its own set of challenges relative to transportation,” she said.

The Partnership recently published a list of the top 10 “transportation nightmares” in the area. Several of these have to do with congested highway interchanges and crowded roads. At the I-495/I-90 intersection, for example, Strunkin said a move to all-electronic tolling is a positive development, but without toll booths the dangers of vehicles weaving from one highway to the other become even more significant. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is now looking at potential solutions to the problem, but getting construction moving is a long process. Meanwhile, other hot spots such as the I-495/Route 9 intersection have even further to go.

The trouble with local roads and highways is, of course, closely connected with public transit issues, and two of the Partnership's 10 nightmares have to do with public transit. One is the shortcomings of MBTA commuter rail service. According to the Partnership, it offers limited options for “reverse commutes” from the Boston area to MetroWest and generally doesn't provide the level of modern, consistent service that many riders want. The other public transit “nightmare” is the lack of connections to get riders all the way from their homes to their offices and back.

On both those fronts, though, there are some signs of progress. The Fitchburg commuter rail line now has a train from Boston arriving at Littleton before 9 a.m., and there are plans for more reverse commute options. Transit officials hope to eventually get a train all the way into Fitchburg early each weekday morning. Meanwhile, new shuttle bus and van services are cropping up to ferry workers from the trains to their jobs and from one part of the region to another.

In Westborough, a commuter shuttle operated by the Worcester Regional Transit Authority gained popularity rapidly after starting operations in December 2013, hitting a high of 494 riders in September. The service starts out at Bay State Commons each day, meets the first train into the commuter rail station, drops riders off at the local office parks, and then repeats the route to meet the second train. The number of riders dropped during the unusually snowy and cold February and March of this year, but Westborough Town Planner Jim Robbins said he's confident the numbers will rise again.

“The service is very popular,” he said.

The MetroWest Regional Transit Authority operates similar shuttles, including a six-year-old route in Natick that now serves more than 100 riders a day, according to administrator Ed Carr. Many of those taking advantage are workers from MathWorks and Natick Soldier Systems Center. A service that started in Framingham last year, serving companies such as Genzyme, Bose and Staples in the Framingham Tech Park and 9/90 Corporate Center area, now gets 30 to 40 riders each day.

Meanwhile, aside from providing its own private shuttle from Boston — the one that Deo rides — Boston Scientific has partnered with the transit authority to extend one of its public shuttles from Marlborough City Hall to the company's campus. The extended line gives company employees an easy way to get back and forth between the office and the commuter rail line, and it also increases the shuttle's service area for all riders.

“They paid that incremental cost of extension of the service and left it open to the public,” Carr said. “So it was really a win-win for everybody. It goes right by the hospital in Marlborough.”

Carr said the transit authority's ridership has doubled every year since it started operations seven years ago, but public funding has been very tight. More partnerships like the one with Boston Scientific could help stretch those dollars further, he said.

Farther north in the region, meanwhile, another public-private partnership is broadening the transit options. CrossTown Connect, an association formed in 2012, unites the towns of Acton, Boxborough, Littleton, Westford, and Maynard with private employers, offering shuttles and car pooling services for commuters and local residents.

“Things have been going really well,” said Executive Director Scott Zadakis. “We're growing.”

The group's current business members are the tech firms Juniper Networks and Red Hat and real estate developer The Gutierrez Co. in Westford, as well as IBM in Littleton and Clocktower Place in Maynard. Zadakis said another real estate company, Sam Park & Co., which is developing a commercial property in Littleton, is also in the process of joining up.

So far, CrossTown Connect has organized a shuttle from Alewife Station in Cambridge to Juniper and Red Hat through a third-party provider. It also uses an online platform to match up commuters for car pools, and encourages biking to work. To help anyone worried about missing their bus or train or having to run home to pick up a sick kid from school, the group guarantees an emergency ride to anyone who uses public transportation.

“It's a great cushion to have,” Zadakis said. “It's not used very often, but it's great to have it there. It just really helps people get over their reluctance to not have their car with them.”

Meanwhile, beyond its work with CrossTown Connect, the town of Acton is adding more options, including efforts to help people walk or bike to work. Kristin Guichard, Acton's assistant town planner, said the Acton portion of an old rail line is being converted to a trail for walking and biking this spring, adding on to a path that stretches from Lowell. Another rail trail from Maynard will come next year.

Acton voters also authorized a new shuttle service, which is scheduled to start in the fall. Doug Halley, director of the town health department, said the shuttle will initially use a 16-person van, probably making 10 stops at apartment complexes, business centers and the commuter rail station.

“We recognize in this area that even though our population isn't as great as you might see in Boston, our road systems aren't as great either,” Halley said. “In Metro Boston, there are lots of options to get off the crowded roads. In this area, once you're on a road you're pretty much stuck.”

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