Thursday, June 5, 2008

Area shouldn't have to wait for commuter rail

A couple of months ago, efforts to bring commuter rail service to Clinton were bolstered when Lt. Gov. Tim Murray suggested that opening a rail link between Clinton and Boston should be a priority. It’s a great idea, but it will most likely take a decade or more to implement.

But with the cost of gas spiking, commuters from the Clinton area could use relief a lot sooner than that. We don’t need to wait. The MBTA should add shuttle buses to and from Worcester’s Union Station immediately.

As I envision it, the shuttles would be considered an extension of the rail line. Commuters leaving Clinton would pay a full fare to their final destination (Worcester, Framingham, South Station, etc.) upon boarding the bus and receive free transfer to the train when they arrive at Union Station. The buses leaving Clinton would be timed to coincide with the schedule of trains from Worcester. For instance, a bus from Clinton would leave at 6:15 am to arrive at Union Station in time for the 6:55 train.

Similarly, commuters heading back to Clinton would pay the full fare when they board the outbound train, and transfer to the Clinton shuttle for free.

In a perfect world, the extension of the line to Clinton via Shuttle wouldn’t cost commuters any extra (a Worcester-to-South Station “Zone 8” ticket includes all local subway and bus service once you get to the city, one could argue that it should be the same at the other end of the line) but even a surcharge of $1.00 or so each way would probably still be worth it for most commuters. Round trip to Boston would be around $17.50, but compare that to other options:

Drive to Boston and park downtown: $45.60
Drive to Alewife and take the T: $20.57
Drive to Worcester and take the Commuter Rail: $21.06

Broken out over the course of a year, commuters could save more than $700 over the cheapest option, and save thousands of dollars over driving to the city. Those who want to travel to Boston for events or on weekends would also reap the savings.*

The current rail proposal would link Clinton to Boston via Ayer and the Fitchburg rail line. Once the rail link is established, going through Ayer would make the most sense as it would make for a quicker trip to Boston. But in the interim, I believe a bus link to the commuter rail in Worcester is a better plan since it would also solve the problem created when the Worcester Regional Transit Authority ends its Clinton line in July. While the shuttle service would be primarily an extension of the commuter rail, people who wanted to use buses to go shopping, etc. would still have the option of picking up a WRTA bus and Union Station or making the short walk downtown. If the shuttle went to Ayer, people who wanted to go shopping, etc. would find themselves in Ayer.

(Establishing bus service between Clinton and Worcester for the purpose of shuttling customers between merchants is not the plan—it hasn’t worked for the WRTA—but if it is a collateral benefit, all the better.)

I don’t envision a constant run of buses back and forth between Clinton and Worcester; rather, I propose that there be a couple of round trips each morning and a couple more each evening, perhaps adding one late return to Clinton after the last train on weekends and nights when the Red Sox, Celtics, or Bruins are playing. I propose an express bus from Clinton to Union Station, but perhaps one stop in West Boylston would be appropriate.

Where would Clinton put a bus station? The rail proposal would resurrect the old Clinton Depot, but renovating it would take a lot of time and money and there isn’t a whole lot of commuter parking there. For that matter, there aren’t too may large parcels anywhere in town just dying to have dozens of cars parked all day. The best bet might be for the state to lease or buy the old vacant parking lot at the corner off Sterling and Brook Streets (across from the former Supernant site). There are probably others I’m not thinking of.

In any event, those are all details that can be worked out.

And they should be worked out soon. There is no reason that commuters in Clinton, Sterling, and the other towns between the rail lines should have to wait a decade or more for rail service when bus service could be used to provide public transportation to our communities much sooner.

*To calculate cost, I estimated mileage from the center of Clinton and figured gas prices of $4.00/gallon and an average MPG of 23. Your mileage may vary. Costs of parking, rail fares, and tolls are also included. Costs of rail tickets and parking would likely drop for commuters purchasing monthly passes.

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