RTAs taking the wheel
Regional transit authorities want to satisfy growing need
Photographs by Meghan Moore
WHILE GREATER BOSTON AGONIZES over the multibillion-dollar MBTA project to extend the Green Line a mere five miles, another transit tug-of-war is going on across the rest of the state. The Bay State’s regional transit authorities have their own expansion dreams, albeit modest ones. Their dreams don’t involve complex rail construction contracts or splashy station designs; they generally want to add a bus route here or there or launch Sunday service. Mostly, they sense a growing need and want to satisfy it.
The changing landscape outside Boston reflects a shift in attitudes about public transportation. For years, it was a given that residents of suburban and rural towns in Massachusetts needed cars to get around. But as congestion increases and jobs migrate outside the Boston core, residents in suburban and rural communities are demanding more transportation services. Almost all of the regional transit authorities want some combination of extended weekday hours and more frequent service on well-travelled routes. Outer Boston suburbs are finding that more people are making “reverse commutes” from the Hub to suburban towns and want “last mile” rides from their commuter rail stops to the office parks where they work. Areas from Lowell to Fitchburg to the Berkshires want Sunday service.
Yet even as the demand for more service grows, there seems to be a chicken-and-egg game going on with this transition from cars to regional buses. People are reluctant to ride systems with spotty service, but it’s hard to justify building up the networks to offer more service when the ridership numbers aren’t there. The regional transit authorities have wrestled some new monies out of Beacon Hill but not enough to deliver the kinds of schedules that riders can rely on.
The RTAs have a total combined budget of more than $82 million for fiscal 2016 ($2 million more than last year), which is just about what the MBTA spent preparing for this winter. There’s a reason for the huge funding difference. The key difference between the MBTA and the regional bus systems is ridership. The MBTA commands a $1 billion-plus budget because the metro Boston transit system provides hundreds of millions of trips every year. The smaller regional systems run far fewer trips, with roughly 30 million boardings in fiscal 2015.
Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents MBTA communities, points out that the top 10 MBTA bus routes have more trips than all the regional bus networks combined. “At the end of the day, Worcester does not have a metro area as dense and as populated as metro Boston,” says Regan. “That’s what makes transit systems work—population density.”
Some RTAs are trying to boost their service by raising funds on their own or by collaborating with businesses that rely on transportation systems to deliver workers to their door. But Jeannette Orsino, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Transit Authorities, says it’s time for transportation dollars to be spread more equitably around the state. “We don’t have to be the MBTA,” she says. “But if the T is going to get money, we are, too.”
CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE
The Bay State’s 15 regional transit authorities serve 262 communities. They were first established in the early 1970s when the private bus companies that served the Boston suburbs concluded that the routes were no longer profitable and cut back or eliminated service. Faced with major service gaps, the Legislature established the RTAs to pick up the slack.
Each authority has a distinctive set of priorities and challenges. The bus networks that serve cities such as Worcester, Springfield, Lowell, Lawrence, and Brockton cover fairly dense urban communities and smaller outlying areas, providing daily service as well as services for seniors and the disabled. MetroWest is largely suburban while the Berkshire, Franklin, and Montachusetts regional transit authorities serve mostly rural and small-town residents. Tourist destinations such as Cape Ann, Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard have year-round service that gets trimmed a bit during the winter months. Nantucket currently has seasonal-only service, but is moving toward year-round paratransit service. The island wants to study whether all-year service makes sense on other routes as well.
Under a series of state transportation finance reforms, RTAs are forward-funded like the MBTA, meaning that they get a specific state appropriation at the beginning of a fiscal year which allows the authorities to better control their annual operating costs. Funding pledges from individual municipalities continue to be paid anywhere from 18 to 24 months after the end of a fiscal year, which makes budgeting tough. The RTAs and the Legislature are trying to phase out this local practice.
Communities that are members of RTAs pay an assessment of at least 25 percent and not more than 50 percent of the costs to run service in their community. Assessments can increase no more than 2.5 percent over the previous year unless a municipality agrees to an increase to pay for the cost of a new service. If a community that pays a MBTA assessment decides to join a regional transit authority, they will pay their assessment to that system. That means the MBTA will no longer receive that funding. Since the MBTA has to recoup the money, it passes those costs on to communities such as Boston and Cambridge. They pay higher assessments as a result.
In 2009, Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, co-founded the RTA Caucus. Combine Rosenberg’s power from his current perch as Senate President with Sen. Karen Spilka’s clout as the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and RTAs now have friends in high places who can wrangle more dollars.
In fiscal 2014, the authorities got a 20 percent increase in overall funding as the RTA budget rose from $67 million to $80 million, in part because legislative leaders outside metro Boston were wary of backing some MBTA initiatives until their Greater Boston colleagues supported the RTA funding increases. RTA trips rose 5 percent from 2014 to 2015, in part because additional funds allowed networks to add new routes and additional service.
Every RTA has a wish list, and the MetroWest system is no exception. Spilka wants to see a bus route connecting the Ashland MBTA commuter rail station to the rest of the MetroWest RTA. Marlborough Mayor Arthur Vigeant wants service to Marlborough Hills, a huge, new mixed-used development with retail, homes, and a hotel near offices for GE healthcare, Quest Diagnostics, and other large firms. Carr wants Sunday service and a few more trips to the Woodland Green Line station in Newton.
The reality of public transit outside Greater Boston exasperates municipal leaders. “I-495 is the 128 of 25 years ago,” says Vigeant. “I need transportation for employees that are coming into Marlborough from Cambridge and Boston. My feeling is that if we are going to be a business hub here, I should have some type of public transportation to-and-from and to try and keep some cars off the road.”
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK
More than a generation ago, Metrowest was better known more for its apple orchards than for its corporate offices. As the region’s business sector grew, most people drove to work. But as congestion grew along Route 9, pressure built for adding public transportation. The effort didn’t gain much traction initially because many of the communities in the area were already paying dues to the MBTA and there was no provision in state law for opting out.
Spilka, an Ashland Democrat, was the force behind changing the law and creating in 2006 the newest regional transit authority, the MetroWest RTA. She says her fellow lawmakers “could not believe that there wasn’t even a public bus that went down Route 9.” Spilka successfully lobbied her colleagues to allow municipalities to opt-out of the MBTA and create their own bus networks or join existing RTAs.
Sandwiched between Boston and Worcester, Metrowest is the Bay State’s second largest economic region. Compared to the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority, which has a mix of smaller cities such as Lawrence, Methuen, and Haverhill but only a few well-defined job centers, the MetroWest RTA serves a suburban enclave with a high concentration of large towns, businesses, and shopping.
Framingham and Marlborough host companies from a diverse range of sectors, from information technology and life sciences to manufacturing. The Route 9 shopping corridor runs through the region and it has five MBTA commuter rail stations in Ashland, Framingham, Natick, Southborough, and Westborough.
With this profile, Metrowest should be riding high with excellent bus connections, especially ones that link the “last mile” between MBTA commuter rail stations and the region’s office parks. But Carr, who runs the MetroWest RTA, is the first to admit that the public bus system is far from world class. “We have an OK system,” he says. “It’s not a good system or a great system.”
Since its creation, the MWRTA has grown in size from one bus serving Framingham and Natick to more than 100 buses serving 15 communities: Ashland, Dover, Framingham, Holliston, Hopkinton, Hudson, Marlborough, Milford, Natick, Sherborn, Southborough, Sudbury, Wayland, Wellesley, and Weston.
MWRTA ridership rose 10 percent in fiscal 2015, with 645,000 trips on its buses, up from nearly 589,000 the year before. With a fiscal 2017 budget of $8 million and half of that going to a paratransit program for seniors and the disabled, there’s not much left over for goals such as adding service to the popular but overcrowded runs between Natick, Framingham, and the Woodland Green Line MBTA station in Newton. To put on a brand new bus route running a weekday schedule for most of the year, including costs such as fuel and insurance, would cost roughly $250,000.
The demand for more service initially came from people commuting from one end of the region to the other, but now it is coming from people making reverse commutes from metro Boston.
Framingham, Natick, and Marlborough are the system’s hotspots. The rural areas along Route 20—Sudbury, Weston, Wayland—have heavy paratransit usage but little in the way of MWRTA regular service. Communities in the southern part of Metrowest—Holliston, Hopkinton and Dover—also lack good links to the rest of the region.
At first glance an affluent community like Weston may not seem a likely candidate for mass transit and, indeed, Carr notes that the town lacks the population density to merit having a regular route passing through it. But a WMRTA route in Wellesley, which has greater density, has proven popular.
MAKING SUBURBAN TRANSIT WORK
Hustling for funding is the prime directive for Carr. He is happy to show off the bright and shiny bus maintenance garage at the MetroWest RTA’s recently opened Blandin Avenue headquarters near the Framingham commuter rail station. Most of the $12 million to convert the old Boston Edison facility into a 20,000-square-foot bus hub, maintenance facility, and administrative headquarters came from the federal government.
Carr also has a location ready to go for a compressed natural gas filling station for his bus fleet. Since it would be the only such facility in Metrowest, Carr wants to open it to the public to generate another new source of revenue for the authority. The transit chief has spruced up a wooded, trash-and-mattress littered area where drug addicts used to hang out to begin construction on a pedestrian and bike path from the bus hub to the commuter rail station.
To get more parking, Carr has his eye on land owned by the state Department of Transportation and MBTA adjacent to the station and a town-owned parking garage with broken and graffiti-covered windows. Carr wants to collect more parking fees and plow that money into the commuter rail station. He believes that fixing up the station would generate more riders for the RTA’s buses. A bill that would allow him to do just that is pending in the House Ways and Means Committee. The RTA-specific proposal would allow the transit authorities to use parking fees and other revenue for operation and maintenance projects approved by the secretary of transportation.
But the MetroWest RTA’s best kept secret is a few miles away in Marlborough. It’s where the RTA struck up a rare public-private partnership with Boston Scientific, the Marlborough medical device and technology firm. The company wanted to bolster its green credentials by getting a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, or LEED, designation for its new headquarters. Creating new employee transportation options improves its LEED ranking. Boston Scientific had car and vanpools and private shuttles to downtown Boston, but there was no bus stop nearby.
Cindy Frene, president of TransAction Associates, a Woburn transportation consulting firm, is the woman behind Boston Scientific’s employee transportation program. She approached Carr with a proposal: The MetroWest RTA already had a bus route running between the Southborough MBTA commuter rail station, Marlborough City Hall, and Marlborough Hospital. Would he consider extending the route about a mile to the Boston Scientific campus?
Carr agreed and the two parties became transportation partners. The company pays the MetroWest RTA $25,000 each year to cover the authority’s additional costs for the route. The bus, which also carries local residents, operates at peak times Monday through Friday mornings and afternoons, with reduced service on holidays.
“Not too many RTAs are getting a direct contribution from an employer,” says Eric Bourassa, director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission’s transportation division. “If some of these employers can subsidize these routes and open them to the public, that’s a win-win.”
Ridership for the new route, however, remains low. Boston Scientific could not provide data on how many employees use the route. Tom Keppeler, a company spokesman, expects ridership to improve as people find out about the route.
Paul Matthews, executive director of the 495/Metro-West Partnership, a regional economic development advocacy group, is not surprised by the weak numbers. He says commuters are creatures of habit who often adopt a wait-and-see stance about a new service to see if it survives and have yet to be convinced that such a partnership makes sense. “There is a wariness on the part of employers out here and a wariness that they not be asked to fund services that are, in fact, public services,” Matthews says. “Whether or not companies are open to public-private partnerships tends to vary from company to company.”
Getting more businesses to help cover the cost of a bus route will require a major culture shift. In communities such as Marlborough, where businesses pay a higher commercial property tax rate than residents, some executives feel that they already pay more than their fair share. But employers are slowly realizing that highly-skilled workers, especially younger ones, prefer the convenience of cars and vanpools, or guaranteed rides home by taxi in case of family emergencies or late nights at the office. They are keen on public transportation, too—if it is convenient, reliable, and affordable.“Transportation is as important as the 401k,” says Robert Buckley of Riemer and Braunstein, a Boston law firm, who has worked on Metrowest development projects such as Marlborough Hills.
The MBTA may continue to dominate the headlines but passenger demand for transportation choices in places such as Metrowest has fueled a new assertiveness on the part of the regional bus networks. They are no longer content with second-class status and want to be able to offer more of what their customers want. “People don’t all go into Boston,” says Ashland’s Spilka. “Fairness and equity have to be part of the discussion.”