Cooperation key to addressing region’s transportation voids

Agencies should stop thinking in silos, share revenues and costs

CONGESTION IS A COMMON TOPIC of conversation these days in Eastern Massachusetts.  Frustration with the transportation system is at a level rarely seen.  Economic development officials are concerned that congestion will slow economic growth, and that some of the talent important to the Massachusetts economy will migrate to locales where the daily commute is less annoying.

Massachusetts is working hard to develop better public transportation. Recent studies have looked at a new vision for commuter rail, improving the MBTA’s bus service, bolstering the service provided by regional transit authorities, and addressing congestion itself.  Regrettably, these studies have been siloed, dealing with a single mode, whereas the traveler is looking for the best route regardless of mode or combination of modes.

Looking at existing services by mode means that the questions of “Where should there be service where there is limited or no service now?” and “Why do major service gaps exist?” are not asked.

One area where the service gap is particularly obvious is the lack of bus service that links points between Route 128 and I-495 with points inside of Route 128 outside of the Boston core.  This void particularly limits access to jobs along Route 128 for residents of Gateway Cities.

On the MBTA system map, bus, ferry, and rapid transit services are mostly within Route 128, and mostly radial. MBTA operations outside of Route 128 are almost all commuter rail, and all those operations are radial to the two Boston stub-end terminals.

Massachusetts has 15 regional transit authorities, eight of which have service areas that overlap the MBTA’s.  Those eight agencies have very few services that cross Route 128 or that link to MBTA bus and rapid transit services.  As a result, if anyone looks to make a trip between a point outside of Route 128 and a point inside of Route 128 outside of downtown Boston one almost never finds a viable public transportation option.

This public transit void is a structural problem in how transit is organized and funded in Massachusetts.  The regional transit authorities are not reimbursed for service outside their member towns, so they have little ability to expand service beyond their member towns even when there is clear demand for such service.  And given how MBTA’s local assessments are structured, there is little incentive for the MBTA to expand beyond its current service area.

In order to close this void in public transportation, Massachusetts needs to find ways to coordinate the planning processes among multiple metropolitan planning and transit agencies.  Mechanisms need to be developed to share revenues and costs between agencies.  Such cooperative efforts would likely lead to new transit hubs in the vicinity of Route 128 with routes to existing MBTA rapid transit hubs, regional transit authority’s hubs, and new circumferential routes linking hubs on different radial commuter rail routes.

An example of an addition to the public transit network that would be an initial step toward closing the void was a proposal made by the Lowell Regional Transit Authority to the MBTA’s Better Bus Project to extend the T’s 62 bus, which runs between Alewife Station and the VA Hospital in Bedford, to Lowell.  Adding a route between the VA Hospital and Lowell was a recommended expansion for Lowell Regional Transit Authority in its 2015 transit plan when “resources and funding are available.” But since Bedford is not one of the Lowell RTA’s member towns, funding is more complicated.

To drive between Lowell and the VA hospital takes less than 20 minutes outside of rush hour.  Depending on route, a direct bus service would probably take no more than 40 minutes.  The present public transit service takes over two hours, involving two transfers between bus routes.  If one of those connections is missed, the trip time increases by an hour outside of peak periods.

Meet the Author

Andrew Jennings

Retired transportation consultant, Resident of North Billerica
A route providing a single seat ride from Alewife to Lowell would be a better alternative, and likely a lower-cost alternative, than two uncoordinated routes serving the VA.

To combat congestion, Massachusetts needs better public transportation.  Closing the void in public transportation between communities inside and outside of 128 should be thoroughly explored.

Andrew Jennings is a retired transportation consultant.  He lives in North Billerica is Billerica’s representative on the Lowell Regional Transportation Authority’s Advisory Board.